Evolution, Climate Change Could Divide the Republican Party

Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry have clashed on science and faith. Will their dispute widen an existing split in the GOP?

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The collision between Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry over climate change and the evolution of human life threatens to widen the central rift in the Republican electoral coalition even as it helps each man sharpen his image in the party's crowded 2012 presidential field.

The confrontation represents more of a gamble for Huntsman, the former Utah governor lagging in the polls, than it does for Texas Gov. Perry, who immediately catapulted into the race's top tier after entering it in mid-August. Although an overwhelming majority of scientists agree that carbon pollution is contributing to global climate change, and virtually all accept that an evolutionary process of natural selection explains the emergence of human life, polls show that most Republican voters second Perry's rejection of both beliefs.

"When you look at the people who will represent the core of these primaries, the doubts about global warming are gospel, and a more [religiously] traditionalist view about evolution is the prevailing point of view," says Andrew Kohut, director of the non-partisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which studies public opinion. Even so, Huntsman's championing of science over faith and ideology offers him an opportunity to raise his profile with what his campaign increasingly acknowledges is his natural constituency: the overlapping circles of the party's best-educated, least religiously devout, and moderate elements. At the same time, Perry's staunch defense of unwavering hard-right positions on both questions helps him appeal to unvarnished social and economic conservatives as a "battle-tested conservative warrior," as his campaign described him in a fundraising solicitation this week.

By solidifying those identities, the argument could benefit both men. But, if it persists, their debate could also highlight the differences between the GOP's college-educated and less devout managerial wing and its more blue-collar and evangelical populist wing. The two camps converge in support for cutting taxes and spending, but differ on cultural questions, sometimes in their views but more in how much they emphasize them.

"It's good for the party in that this is a debate we have to have," said Alex Lundry, a Republican voter-targeting expert who is neutral in the 2012 race (though others in his firm TargetPoint work for Mitt Romney). "There are a couple of core debates that need to be had in the next 10 years--over gay rights, immigration and the role of science. But in order for Republicans to win this election, it has to be a referendum on Barack Obama ... and his stewardship of the economy. To the extent any debates are had in the party that diverge from that goal, that's bad."

The dispute began when Perry, in his first week of campaigning, described evolution as "a theory" with "some gaps in it" and said climate change was a theory that "still has not been proven" and was driven in part by a "substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data" to secure research grants.

Huntsman, whose campaign has struggled to generate momentum and attention, responded first with a tweet late last week in which he pointedly wrote, "To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming." Then on Sunday, on ABC's This Week, Huntsman sharpened his criticism by accusing Perry of identifying with an "anti-science" position that could drive away voters in 2012. When "we find ourselves on the wrong side of science," Huntsman insisted, the party is placed in "a losing position."

On the specifics of the argument, polls leave no doubt that most Republican voters side with Perry.

In a 2010 Pew survey, only about one in six Republicans said they believed human activity was changing the climate. In a Gallup survey this March that phrased the question differently, 36 percent of Republicans said they believed pollution from human activities had contributed to "increases in the Earth's temperature over the last century," while 62 percent of Republicans attributed those changes to natural changes in the environment. Rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change has become an article of faith for virtually all elements of the GOP coalition. Even in a secular, well-educated state such as New Hampshire, for instance, University of New Hampshire surveys since April 2010 have found that only about one-fourth of Republicans believe human activity is changing the climate. National figures provided to National Journal by Gallup combining surveys from 2011 and 2010 show that college-educated Republicans are even more likely than their non-college counterparts to reject the notion that human activity is changing the climate.

In both the Gallup and Pew surveys, majorities of Democrats attributed climate change to human activity--the conclusion of the vast majority of scientists, including the National Academy of Sciences. Independents fell in between, with one-third in the Pew survey and half in the Gallup poll attributing climate change to human activity.

Image credit: Adam Hunger/Reuters, Jim Cole/AP

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On evolution, just 23 percent of Republicans said in a 2009 Pew poll that human life had evolved solely through a natural process, while another 26 percent said evolution had occurred under divine guidance and 39 percent said life has always existed in its present form. When Gallup phrased the choices slightly differently last December, just 8 percent of Republicans said they believed human life had evolved without assistance from God, 36 percent said evolution had proceeded under divine guidance, and a 52 percent majority said God had created "human beings pretty much in their present form." (In contrast to climate change, the most recent Gallup surveys show that non-college Republicans are more likely than their college-educated counterparts to believe that God created man in his present form, though nearly half of the latter group shares that belief.)

Each survey found greater support for evolution without divine involvement among Democrats and independents; but in each case most Americans in those categories also rejected that explanation for the development of human life.

Considering all these results, Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz said that Huntsman was raising arguments against Perry that would have been more effective in the GOP a generation ago. "Thirty years ago, that approach would have made more sense in that there was a larger proportion of the Republican base that that would have appealed to," Abramowitz said. "But those sort of moderate Republicans--the people who were economic conservatives but social moderates--that's a very small segment of the Republican base these days, especially among Republican primary voters."

For Huntsman, the question is whether his case against Perry is larger than the sum of these parts. The tone of Huntsman's comments was as notable as the substance: Romney, currently the strongest candidate for the party's managerial wing, has expressed similar views to Huntsman on both evolution and climate change, but never so confrontationally. Huntsman's sharp words for the Texas governor also came as part of a broader attempt to define himself as a centrist counterpoint to all of his rivals, most pointedly by portraying the rest of the GOP field as irresponsible for opposing the legislation that raised the debt ceiling and allowed the federal government to avoid defaulting on its debts.

"He really believes that it is a losing proposition, particularly in any kind of national election, to be viewed as anti-science and challenging the fundamental findings of the scientific community on major questions of the day," said Whit Ayres, Huntsman's pollster. "And I think he was appalled at the fact that every other candidate in the race said we should oppose the only option on the table to avoid default. He sees himself as a serious candidate addressing serious issues and a lot of his opponents as frankly pandering." Aides to Huntsman and Perry each reject the idea that they are narrowing their potential appeal in the GOP field by taking such diametrical positions. Ayres says Huntsman isn't writing off the GOP's large block of religiously devout voters, noting that he has long opposed abortion and that his comments on evolution do not preclude divine involvement in the process. Conversely, Ray Sullivan, Perry's former gubernatorial chief of staff and incoming campaign communications director, says the governor does not view his positions on evolution and climate change as "mutually exclusive" with support for science. "It is possible to be pro-research and development and pro-science and be skeptical about man-made global warming or Darwinism," Sullivan said.

Yet many analysts agree, the practical effect of the positions Huntsman and Perry have taken on these issues is to more deeply entrench them along opposite shores of the GOP's divide between managers and populists.

Lundry says the effect may be even greater for Huntsman than for Perry. "There is not a lot of turning back from that [for him]," he said. "From Huntsman, this is not a change in tone and volume. If we're using a radio analogy this is a change of the station." After Huntsman's barrage of criticism against his rivals, Lundry said, the remaining question is whether he goes "all Bulworth on the Republican primary"--a reference to Warren Beatty's 1998 movie in which a disillusioned Senator begins rapping inconvenient truths about the political system.

Ayres acknowledges that Huntsman's support "is more firmly ensconced ... in the managerial wing of the party than the populist wing." And though Perry's camp insists he intends to emphasize his economic record, his unequivocal embrace of hard-right social positions could complicate his outreach in coastal states with more moderate Republicans, and other contests that allow independents to participate. "I think he will narrow his audience not so much by his position but the intensity with which he takes on these issues," predicts Kohut. "Electability will be an issue for Perry."

However these arguments affect the GOP primary race, they highlight one of the core Democratic hopes for 2012: that Republican positions on social and environmental issues will repel some white-collar suburban voters otherwise economically disenchanted with President Obama. With his high-profile criticism of the dominant GOP positions on evolution and climate change, Huntsman may be simultaneously warning his party about that possibility and increasing the odds that it occurs.

Image credit: Adam Hunger/Reuters, Jim Cole/AP