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Is Climate Change A Wedge Issue vs Romney?

One bit of Barack Obama’s recent interview with Rolling Stone has caused a little stir: He talked about climate change! After not mentioning it once in the 2011 State of the Union, nor in his recent Earth Day proclamation, Obama had this to say when the magazine brought up the issue:

“I suspect that over the next six months, this is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign, and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way. That there’s a way to do it that is entirely compatible with strong economic growth and job creation.”

This set off bells, including at the Washington Post editorial board, which urged Obama on while chiding him for past dallying on the issue. Might Obama in fact be planning on making a campaign plank out of global warming, despite his and the Democrats’ failure to advance cap-and-trade legislation? (The legislation passed the House in 2009 but never got close to the 60 filibuster-proof votes needed in the Senate, thereby leaving many House Democrats to suffer the political fallout for a tough vote with no reward in return.) At first blush, it seems an odd issue for Obama to push. After all, it’s the Republicans who’ve been trying to make hay out of the energy issue, hammering Obama over the delay of the Keystone pipeline and high gas prices (never mind that Mitt Romney, as Massachusetts governor, embraced high gas prices just a few years ago.)

Looked at another way, though, climate change might not be a bad thing for Obama to talk about—as a wedge issue, with certain audiences. Specifically, the well-educated swing voters who backed him last time around but may be taking a look at Romney, who showed strength with upscale voters in the Republican primary. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar recently argued that this is a real vulnerability for Obama:

It’s easy to forget, now that Obama is preaching a populist message on the campaign trail, that a major part of his support came from the very 1 percent that he’s now calling on to pay their fair share in taxes. Obama carried the super-wealthy—those making $200,000 or more a year—with 52 percent of the vote, 17 points more than John Kerry won in 2004. But now surveys show Obama losing significant ground with affluent voters, trailing Romney 49 percent to 43 percent among those making $100,000 or more in the latest Quinnipiac poll—his worst showing among any economic demographic.
The struggles have extended to the fundraising front, where visions of an Obama juggernaut have fallen far short of expectations, thanks to weaker-than-expected donations from Wall Street donors and bundlers, whose enthusiasm toward the president has cooled over the last four years. The populist rhetoric, along with the Dodd-Frank legislation cracking down on the financial industry, are major factors why the Obama campaign is behind its 2008 fundraising pace.

I think Josh may be overstating the problem slightly here—he’s mixing a couple different numbers by referring to Obama’s strong performance with voters over $200,000 last time and his troubles with people over $100,000 now. The fact is, Obama didn’t do as well in 2008 with voters in the $100,000-$200,000 range as he did with voters above $200,000, so that Quinnipiac figure is not as troubling as suggested. Still, Kraushaar is on to something—Romney holds a natural appeal for many upscale, suburban swing voters that John McCain lacked, and that he certainly lacked once he picked the Alaskan huntress as his running mate. Obama needs to worry about holding onto this demographic in states such as Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado and Pennsylvania (among other states) even as he works to limit his losses among working-class white voters with his more populist language. And what better way to do that than to remind these upscale voters that Romney has abandoned his formerly strong stance on addressing climate change for a morass of near-denialist statements? At the very least, it might force Romney to tack back to the center (i.e., scientific reality) on this issue, thus highlighting anew how far he has swung from his technocratic moorings. So keep an eye on this. It may just have been an off-the-cuff answer to a good question. But it may also be something that Chicago has up its sleeve.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis