It’s been a momentous two years for energy policy as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused fuel prices to fluctuate wildly, and as Democrats in Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which provided more than $370 billion in funding for clean energy provisions.
Voters across the country are taking note of the push for action on climate change from environmental activists and of the oil and gas industry’s effect on their everyday energy costs, so much that the share of Americans who say energy is their top voting issue has almost doubled, from 4% in 2020 to 7% in 2022, according to Morning Consult surveys conducted annually among more than 100,000 registered U.S. voters.
Amid the nationwide growth in voters’ energy concerns, there was also a shift in party demographics, with those voters increasingly identifying as Republican and conservative since 2020.
Voters on the right and left are heading in opposite directions on energy’s salience at the ballot box
A quarter of energy voters — defined in surveys as those who say energy issues such as carbon emissions, cost of electricity and gasoline, or renewables are top of mind when voting for federal office — identify as Republican in 2022, up from 14% in 2020. Similarly, just under a third of energy voters now identify as conservative, more than twice the share in 2020.
“While the Republican Party in government has not shifted that much, with a few notable exceptions, the grassroots Republican Party is starting to change,” Geoffrey Henderson, a climate researcher and postdoctoral associate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, said during a recent media briefing. “There is a growing constituency of Republican climate advocates. We see unlikely alliances between environmentalists and libertarians trying to scale back regulations on rooftop solar.”
Meanwhile, Democrats and liberals still make up a larger portion of the pie — though much less so today than in 2020: 47% of energy voters consider themselves Democrats, down 9 percentage points compared to two years ago, while 42% identify as liberal, a 20-point decline over the same period.
Independents hold around 30% of the energy vote, as do moderates, who have seen a 6-point increase in energy interest from 2020 to 2022.
Danielle Deiseroth, lead climate strategist for the progressive think tank and polling firm Data for Progress, believes the left’s deprioritization of energy policy comes down to polarization around energy prices. Democrats, especially following the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act that designated more than $370 billion in clean energy provisions, are now seemingly more interested in issues concerning the economy, abortion and gun violence, she said.
Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, are having to answer for high energy costs beyond just blaming Vladimir Putin or Russia, said Stephen Perkins, vice president of grassroots strategy for the American Conservation Coalition, a young conservative-focused climate action nonprofit. That includes being realistic about the need for America to produce more energy to keep those costs down, he said.
“They're having to combine that with their overall climate and environmental agenda, and there is a way to combine those two effectively,” Perkins said. But when Democrats talk about climate policy, there’s almost always a concession that they can’t also talk about traditional forms of energy, he added.
It’s crucial for Democrats to be more engaged on the issue of higher energy costs, especially when it comes to having solutions for communities that are hardest hit by a surge in prices, Perkins said, pointing to low-income, minority and rural areas.
Energy issues are prioritized most by suburban voters, though rural residents’ interest is growing
Morning Consult data shows that slightly less than half of energy voters live in suburban communities, a figure that fell 3 points to 48%. The share of energy voters living in rural areas, meanwhile, ticked up 3 points to 25% over that time period.
Persistent inflation as it relates to energy is particularly salient for swing voters going into the midterms: Per a Morning Consult survey in September, more than 3 in 5 voters found the argument that “the cost of living has soared under Biden’s watch, hurting families at the grocery store and the gas pump” to be at least somewhat convincing in persuading them to vote Republican.
Across the United States, voters most concerned with energy issues are largely situated in Northeastern states such as Vermont (12%), New Hampshire (12%) and Maine (11%). These states also saw the number of energy-first voters roughly double since 2020, which Deiseroth chalked up to higher energy prices that have consequently driven up the share of voters who view energy as an important issue. Diesel prices in the Northeast are some of the highest in the country, according to data from the American Automobile Association as of Oct. 31.
The region is also staring down an energy shortage this winter, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission warned in mid-October, as the regional power grid faces vulnerabilities from limited natural gas pipeline capacity, an increase in U.S. exports amid high global demand and high levels of gas-fired power generation.
The problem is expected to be so critical that New England utility Eversource Energy is asking the Biden administration to consider emergency measures to prevent a natural gas shortage during the winter.
Pockets of Northeast, West Have Largest Shares of Energy Voters
All states saw an increase in energy voters, with the lowest level of growth — a 2-point increase since 2020— occurring in Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Maryland, New York, Tennessee and Washington.
The share of energy voters in Oregon nearly doubled over the past two years and now leads the country at 13%. In Montana, the share of energy voters more than doubled, to 11%.
Perkins said the concern in Oregon is driven by the high costs of energy bills, a more practical reason than the industry-driven spike in Montana. Oregon had the fourth-highest average gasoline price, according to AAA data as of Oct. 31.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the American Conservation Coalition.