The Democrats' Cap And Trade Challenge

While much congressional opposition to cap and trade stems from partisanship and regional economic concerns, cultural and demographic schisms in the debate also play a strong role in politicians' behavior. There are strong splits in perception over the risks of global warming between whites of different educational attainments, and also between whites and minorities. These differences, displayed in last June's House debate over cap and trade legislation, will continue to play a role in the policy debate.

According to a poll the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press conducted in October, 50 percent of Americans support some form of legislation to set limits on carbon emissions, while 39 oppose any such bill. Both white college graduates (59 percent) and non-whites (50 percent) showed stronger support for such a bill than whites without a college education (45 percent).

These splits were exposed during last year's debate on cap and trade legislation developed by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA). Almost two thirds -- 31 of 47 -- of white House members who represent districts with fewer than one in five white college graduates voted against Waxman-Markey. In districts with more than two in five whites with college degrees, more than two thirds of members, 48 of 61, supported the bill.

This divide cuts across party lines. Nationally, 30.4 percent of whites over the age of 25 have college degrees. In the districts of the 44 Democrats who voted against Waxman-Markey, only 23 percent of adult whites have college degrees. A mere seven of the 44 Democrats who opposed the bill come from districts with higher than the national average of white college graduates. In contrast, in the districts of the 211 Democrats who voted for the Waxman-Markey bill, more than one in three whites over age 25 have degrees. While Republicans showed near-universal opposition to the bill, the eight Republicans who supported it came from disproportionately well-educated districts. In these districts, 34 percent of whites have college degrees, as compared to only 28 percent of whites in the districts of Republicans who opposed the bill.

This is not to say that the college-educated have any firmer of a grasp of the science behind global warming than those without a degree. What these numbers do suggest, however, is that there is a profound cultural gap between those whites with access to college education and those without when it comes to cap and trade.

The racial splits on the vote were even more pronounced. Only four of the 64 non-white House Democrats voted against the bill, as compared to more than one in five white Democrats (40 of 194). There are 135 members, both Democratic and Republican, who represent districts with more than a 40 percent minority population; this group voted 101-34 for the cap and trade bill. Conversely, the 145 House members representing districts with less than a 20 percent minority population voted against the bill by a 94-51 margin. Many non-white voters, however, are not strong backers of the legislation: in the Pew poll, only 50 percent of non-whites supported cap and trade, the same as the overall white population and much lower than college-educated whites. African Americans, in fact, opposed cap and trade in the poll by 52 percent to 38 percent.

This strong correlation between the size of minority communities in a district and that member's likelihood to support the bill despite the bill's tepid support from these groups indicates three things. The first is that minority communities, especially blacks, are dependable enough Democrats that their representatives felt secure toeing the party line on this vote. This split also shows how strongly Democratic most high-minority districts are: most members in minority-majority districts had much more to fear from angering House Speaker Nancy Pelosi than from angering their Democratic-leaning constituents. Finally, this shows that while the bill was a rather high-profile vote nationally, in minority communities other political issues are of greater concern -- climate change legislation doesn't stir the same levels of emotion amongst Hispanics and African Americans as the immigration debate or health care reform. When black Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL) voted against the House health care bill, for instance, Rev. Jesse Jackson was furious, saying "You can't vote against health care and call yourself a black man." No similar bile was spewed after Davis opposed Waxman-Markey.

Taken together, the levels of minorities and educated whites help to explain nearly every member, Democrat or Republican, who broke ranks with their party on this vote. Of the 44 Democrats who opposed cap and trade, 40 of them come from districts that are either at least 70 percent white or have fewer college graduates than the national average. Of the eight Republicans who backed the bill, seven represented districts that were either more than 30 percent minority or had higher than average white graduates.

If Senate Democrats hope to pass climate change legislation in the upcoming year, they must take into account these cultural counter-pressures and focus on minimizing defections of Democratic senators from low-minority, low-education states while trying to pick off a few Republicans from states with more college-educated whites. This is a tough path: while there are seven Democratic senators from the 10 states with the lowest white education levels, there are no Republican senators from the 10 states with the most educated white populations. The numbers are daunting, but cap and trade advocates must try to woo Republicans from states with relatively high numbers of educated whites, like Sens. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Otherwise, climate change legislation will likely go up in smoke.