Afterward the media consensus seemed clear: Republican candidate Mitt Romney won the first U.S. presidential debate against President Barack Obama. But Romney's remarks on sustainable energy and oil may actually have cost him undecided voters - his most important audience.
The Denver debate focused on domestic economic issues, including energy independence. Romney confidently ripped into Obama’s plans and investments on renewable energy, and called for more gas and oil exploration in America.
But undecided voters might not have wanted to hear that from Romney.
A study published last week by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, shows that 83 percent of undecided voters — roughly 11 percent of the voting population — want to see more use of renewable power in the future. Indeed 73 percent of Romney’s own supporters believe that too, not much less than the 85 percent of Obama supporters who do.
As a contrast, 55 percent of the undecided voters agree that there should be less use of fossil fuels in the future. Only 35 percent of those likely to vote for Romney agree with this.
Of course, voters will also weigh the candidates on other issues. Economy, jobs, international policy, healthcare and immigration take a very important part of the agenda. However, according to the Yale/George Mason study, 61 percent of them consider global warming as an important issue that will guide their voting choice.
While undecided voters may have broadly agreed on more renewable energy, Romney and Obama have carved out very different positions on the road ahead.
RENEWABLES VERSUS FOSSIL FUELS
“On energy, Governor Romney and I, we both agree that we've got to boost American energy production, and oil and natural gas production are higher than they've been in years,” Obama said yesterday. “But I also believe that we've got to look at the energy sources of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels, and make those investments.”
Romney on the other hand, has campaigned for increased fossil fuel production.
“On government land, your administration has cut the number of (oil and gas) permits and licenses in half. If I'm president, I'll double them, and also get the oil from offshore and Alaska. And I'll bring that pipeline in from Canada.”
Romney also called for more coal power production. “I like coal. I'm going to make sure we can continue to burn clean coal. People in the coal industry feel like it's getting crushed by your policies,” he told Obama.
The two candidates also disagree on how the tax system should treat renewable energy. In the debate, Obama said that the corporate tax breaks to oil companies should be eliminated.
“Now, does anybody think that ExxonMobil needs some extra money, when they're making money every time you go to the pump?” he asked.
As a comeback, Romney attacked what he called Obama’s “$90 billion in breaks” to the renewable energy industry and defended the tax breaks the oil industry gets.
“Now, I like green energy as well, but that's about 50 years' worth of what oil and gas receives,” he charged. “And you say Exxon and Mobil. Actually, this $2.8 billion (subsidy) goes largely to small companies, to drilling operators and so forth.”
With a month left before election day, Wednesday night was probably not the last time we'll hear the candidates fight over renewable energy. And even though Romney is a strong debater, he may want to check his notes before raising the matter with undecided voters.
Santiago Ortega Arango is a Colombian engineer and freelance journalist interested in climate change and renewable power issues. He is an associate professor at the Escuela de Ingeniería de Antioquia and a Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.