How 2016 Democratic challengers position themselves vis a vis Keystone XL could change campaign complexion

A new University of Texas Austin public opinion poll about the Keystone XL pipeline suggests both the Democrats and Republicans have achieved their strategic goals with the project: Making it a political football.

Keystone XL

Source: UT Austin Energy Poll.

The nationwide online poll, conducted March 4–13, shows Americans are hopelessly polarized about Keystone XL: 72 per cent of Republicans who say they are familiar with the project support its construction, compared with only 28 per cent of Democrats. Only several per cent of Republicans oppose Keystone XL, while 34 per cent of Democrats were opposed.

“We’re seeing a continuing divergence of views on key energy issues that clearly tracks political party lines,” said UT Energy Poll Director Sheril Kirshenbaum.

With an election looming in 18 months, both parties have a “wedge issue” they can exploit to mobilize their base. Wedge issues are used by political parties to motivate and mobilize key demographics.

Republicans have done a very good job keeping Keystone XL in the news, from bills vetoed by President Barack Obama to attacks on the EPA’s fight with the State Dept. over the environmental impacts of the Alberta oil sands bitumen that would travel through the pipeline from Edmonton to Gulf Coast refineries. Just over 50 per cent of GOP members are aware of the issue. And that number will likely rise as the campaign heads into the primaries and heats up national and local news cycles.

Keystone XL

Hillary Clinton has been a cautious supporter of Keystone XL in the past. Photo: Handout.

Nearly two out of three Republicans (62 per cent) say they would be more likely to vote for a political candidate who favors completion of Keystone XL, compared with only 29 percent of Democrats surveyed, according to the survey.

But the Democrats haven’t been pikers on this issue, either. Just over 40 per cent of Dems are familiar with Keystone XL. And you can bet that Democratic candidates will be holding up the TransCanada pipeline as an example of the environmental dangers of the oil and gas  industry.

Among all survey respondents, environmental degradation is the top reason they oppose the pipeline (36%) followed by the risk of water contamination (14%). Surprisingly, climate change was cited as a factor by only seven per cent of Democrats. And the environment, as we all know, is a favourite hobby horse of the current president.

Will the same be said for his successor as Democratic nominee for president? Where does Hillary Clinton stand on Keystone XL?  Her public statements while head of State suggest she favored signing off on the project. She told a San Francisco audience in 2010 that “we’re either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada.” Even tepid support by Clinton – or whoever the Democratic candidate might be – could diminish Keystone XL as a wedge issue for the GOP.

Oil and gas industry associations, such as the American Petroleum Institute, have been busy bundling Keystone XL as part of a strategy for America to play a bigger role – perhaps even the biggest role – in global energy markets, thus setting up the Republican presidential challenger to champion the American David vs. the Saudi Goliath.

Wrapping oneself in the flag is a time-honored political tradition (never mind that in this case the oil and the company building the pipeline would be Canadian). And that could offset the potentially dampening effect of a Clinton candidacy.

Wedge issues work best when voters are polarized. A Democratic candidate in the Obama mold might be just what the doctor ordered for the Republicans. A Keystone-loving Clinton might dampen the effect or not affect it at all, depending upon how successful the Republics are at framing the debate.

Keep your eye on Democratic challengers and their positions on Keystone XL. How they position themselves might tell a great deal about how the parties campaign in 2016.