6/21/2008

McCain's Energy Policy and the Electoral Map

The rising cost of oil has prompted politicians and President Bush to come up with various proposals to ease the pain caused by record high gas prices and rising demand from other nations. In addition to pursuing green energy sources, many of the proposed solutions center around increased domestic exploration--that is, drilling in Alaska and off the coasts of California and Southeastern states. These proposals have been debated before, but what makes this latest round of debate particularly intriguing is the fact that John McCain has come out in favor of ending the ban on offshore drilling. This is significant because it represents a policy reversal that opens him up to charges of flip flopping, pandering, or even being in lockstep with President Bush, who also supports ending the ban.

There's one other reason why McCain's reversal on this issue deserves further scrutiny. The presidential election is less than five months away and this position threatens his chances of holding onto a state he can ill afford to lose--Florida, the largest red state after Texas.

Offshore drilling has historically been terribly unpopular in Florida. John McCain's reversal on lifting the ban is likely a risky proposition in the Sunshine State. The beach is one of Florida's greatest assets and is a major part of the state's tourism industry. The mere thought of seeing oil rigs on the horizon from the coast does not appeal to Floridians, even if the rigs are so far away from the coast that they can't be seen at all. The reason for this is that they fear the presence of these rigs will spoil their beaches or hurt tourism. And any environmental incident concerning offshore drilling would conjure up images of the Exxon Valdez disaster from 20 years ago. An oil spill off the Florida coast could potentially devastate the environment as well as the state's economy.

So even though offshore drilling might make for sound energy policy, it's also more likely to be a political loser. Given Obama's recent decision not to accept public financing, he will surely have the resources necessary to contest Florida. Attacking McCain on his energy policy as it pertains to Florida could be quite damaging to the Arizona senator's chances of keeping this state red in November. There has even been talk about McCain competing in California as well, but any talk of offshore drilling there will immediately end any chances he has of putting that state in play.

Of course, McCain is banking on voters' anger with $4 gas superseding their reservations concerning offshore drilling. It is not a short term solution, but it does at least give voters evidence of leadership and offering concrete solutions to addressing the nation's energy problems. This could contrast well with Barack Obama, who is still battling concerns about his inability to talk in specifics. McCain's proposal allows him to challenge Obama by saying, "You may not like my plan, Senator Obama, but what's your plan?"

This could be an effective line of attack for McCain, but there remains the possibility that Floridians will recoil at the notion of drilling off of their pristine coast. And that brings us back to political reality.

The importance of Florida cannot be overstated. It is the third largest state in the nation, but unlike California and New York, it is actually politically competitive. Florida is essentially John McCain's firewall. It is the largest light red state on the map. If McCain loses Florida, this election is over. A Democrat can win the White House without Florida. A Republican can't. Losing Florida would force McCain to win Michigan and Pennsylvania. And if he can't win both, he would have to win at least one along with a medium-sized state, such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Oregon.

Barack Obama will have a tremendous cash advantage against John McCain, so he'll have more money to spend on advertising and GOTV (get out the vote) operations that can help defend him against McCain's attacks. And because Barack Obama didn't campaign in Florida (or Michigan) because of the impending sanctions from the Democratic National Committee, he has a lot more potential room for growth there.

Energy may be a contentious issue that all voters want addressed, but the violent reaction from Floridians that may come from this latest debate illustrates one of the ugly truths about voters' hypocrisy when it comes to energy policy. We want offshore drilling, but only on another state's coastline. We want to use less foreign oil, but only if we can still drive our trucks and SUVs. We want nuclear energy, but only if we can store the waste somewhere far away from us. We want to drill in the wilderness of Alaska and the Mountain West, but only if the surrounding ecosystems are completely undisturbed. True solutions to our energy woes will require politically unpopular leadership.

Offshore drilling may be a valid solution to enhance the nation's domestic energy portfolio and drive down prices over the long term. But the current political reality may make this a foolish decision. McCain is displaying true courage by coming out in favor of offshore drilling. And perhaps high gas prices have caused Floridians to reconsider their stance on the issue. If this is the case, then McCain could keep the state and its 27 electoral votes in the Republican column. But when one considers how much larger Obama's electoral map is, the last thing McCain should do is cede his rival yet another powerful political issue that could threaten the second largest state in his path to 270.

10 comment(s):

Brett said...

Well, he's gambling that energy will be enough of a pain in November that voters will remember simplistic pitches about who was for "cheaper gas" and relieving "pain at the pump" (a phrase I am coming to despise).

Unfortunately, McCain is in a position where he has to take gambles, otherwise he just won't win. He doesn't have the resources to field a full battle (yet, at least), and that means he'll have to rely heavily on outside groups for support. We'll just have to wait and see until later in the year.

S.W. Anderson said...

McCain's pro-drilling position might play better with Floridians than you think, AP.

Travel and tourism are the backbone of Florida's economy. Yes, the idea of offshore rigs and possible oil spills are off putting. But the thought of the state's economy being under water is sure to be much more off putting.

Add to that the millions of Florida retirees living largely off investment income, including investment in corporations like Exxon Mobil and Halliburton. They don't want to see the U.S. economy go in the tank and/or inflation creep up because their incomes will suffer.

Given the way things have gone in Florida the past two presidential elections, I don't think Obama should spend a lot of time and money contesting it.

Florida's large contingent of Jewish voters will be a hard sell for him. So will the state's large population of active-duty and retired military people. I'm not saying it's impossible for Obama to win there, but I think it's a longer shot than most states.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

i would end jup writing a post about his geopolitical madness so i will leave it at that

Dominic said...

Great summarization, but you left out/must remember that part of the reason the issue is even on the table is that China and Cuba want to begin drilling over there as well, and it is imperative that the U.S. figure out who is going to "lay-claim" to the sea floor that lies in the middle of the debate: environmentalists hell bent on preserving the fledgling and important ecosystem, or oil-barons and governments trying to appease an ever exponentially multiplying customer demand.

S.W. Anderson said...

For true geopolitical madness, or at least the kind of disastrous fiascoes and negative results attributable to some kind of psychotic malady, see Bush, George W.; Cheney, Richard.; Rice, Condoleezza; and Hadley, Stephen.

torrance stephens, you've evidently been listening to old "final throes." Big mistake; he hasn't known his butt from his bunion since at least 1985.

Regarding butting heads with Cuba and China in the Gulf of Mexico, my understanding is that neither the U.S. nor Cuba have unlimited territorial-waters rights. Also, the offshore area Cuba has agreed to let China explore for oil lies west of Havana in the Gulf, not just off the Keys.

Jerame Clough said...

I think you are spot on. And even if Obama only raises $22 Million a month, which he is more likely to surpase over the next 5 months, he could spend $11 Million in Florida alone, and still have more money than McCain. I think McCain has really opened himself up here, and I can't imagine why. He opens himself up not only to the Oil rig rebukes, but also re-enforces one of Obama's largest, and in this election, most damaging assertions. That McCain represents a 3rd Bush term.

Anthony Palmer said...

Brett,

In the event that gas prices remain high or even increase beyond the what they are today, perhaps McCain's gamble will pay off because people will see that he is at least offering concrete solutions to our energy crisis.

Oh, and you're not alone with the dislike for the cliche "pain at the pump." People in the media are suckers for alliteration.

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SWA,

Florida is an interesting state. It is dominated by Republicans at the state level because Democrats are packed into gerrymandered districts. I don't think it's nearly as Republican as the other Southern states, but a Democrat is clearly going to have to work hard for it. Obama did not campaign in the state during the primaries, so he is starting at a disadvantage. But he does have more potential room for growth as Floridians get acquainted with him.

Having said that, you are right about the retirees there living off of investment income. And if you have stock in Shell or Exxon, you are doing really, really well. So offshore drilling will likely further increase the value of those stocks, thus finding their way into the pocketbooks of the older voters who own them.

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Dominic,

I think you touched on what this issue is really about. I read that there are millions of acres that oil companies currently have access to but are not yet exploiting. Seems like they want to get access to more land while Bush is in office because if Obama wins, that likely won't happen. So it's a race against time as well as a race against the Chinese.

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Jermaine,

"Third Bush term" is sticking and seems to be more problematic than the "liberal" label from the GOP playbook. And remember, many other Democrats ran on "experience," but that also failed. So McCain would have to run as a change agent as well and stay away from attacks that resonate less than tying him to their party's leader in the White House.

Thank you all for the comments.

Freadom said...

You are probably right here anthony. It's probably impossible for McCain to educate people about the fallacies of oil digging. I live in Michigan, in a town with several oil wells, and they are such insignificant structures you don't even notice them unless you try. And I've never heard of an oil spill in my life here. It's basically nearly impossible with all the new technology for an oil spill to occur. And, besides, new research shows that there is more oil leakage from the bottom of the ocean naturally than would ever be leaked from slant oil wells. However, some people continue to be pessimistic about it nonetheless. The key here is education, and this debate we are having right here. Great post once again. I have to agree with you as I usually do.

Sam said...

Florida is not the third largest state, at least in electoral votes. California, Texas and New York all have more electors.

Anthony Palmer said...

Hi Sam.

In my post I referred to Florida as "the second largest state in McCain's path to 270" and "the largest red state after Texas." You are right in that New York is larger than Florida, but New York is most definitely not a red state and is not a part of McCain's electoral strategy. And if you really want to be technical, the third largest red state would be Ohio even though Illinois and Pennsylvania are bigger electoral prizes.

Thanks for the comment.

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