Tracing the Republican Evolution on Climate Change

Over at the Washington Post today, I ran down where all the potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates stand on climate change, on the occasion of Marco Rubio's foray into denialism. Unlike in 2012, where one candidate after another had to renounce his previous belief both that climate change was occurring and that cap and trade would be a good way to deal with it, this time almost all the candidates (with the exception of Chris Christie) have comforting histories of denialism, in one variant or another.

But even though climate denial now seems mandatory for GOP presidential candidates, if you look at public opinion, there's actually nothing approaching a consensus among Republican voters. And there has been a shift over time; Republicans are actually slowly growing more willing to accept the reality of climate change. Look at this graph from the Pew Research Center:

Between 2006 and 2009, the number of both Republicans and independents believing there was solid evidence for global warming plunged, and I'm guessing the number for independents is accounted for by Republican-leaning independents. And if you look back at those 2012 candidates like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, and Mike Huckabee who had to change their positions on climate change, you'll see that they all took those original positions before 2007 or so. So what happened around that time to produce that big change?

The answer can be found in two words: Al Gore.

An Inconvenient Truth came out in mid-2006. In 2007, Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Although as an environmental issue, climate change had a partisan taint before, at that point it pretty much became an Al Gore issue. And Republicans hate Al Gore. The issue's personification in an individual political figure helped fuel a conservative backlash, with talk radio and Fox News attacking him over it, and ordinary Republicans having to face the prospect of agreeing with someone they despised so much.

And what's happened since to let that number creep back up? I'm not sure, but my guess is that it's a combination of a drumbeat of new evidence on warming, the non-Fox media's greater willingness to describe the consensus accurately instead of presenting it through a prism of false balance, and Gore's relative absence from the debate.

In any case, it's kind of remarkable that today, Republican voters are split right down the middle on climate change, when their leaders are so (near) complete in their denial. In that poll, 61 percent of Republicans who don't consider themselves Tea Partiers think there's solid evidence of global warming, compared to only 25 percent of Tea Partiers. But it isn't as though a candidate who said yes, climate change is happening would find that all Republicans disagree with him.

This happens again and again. When you look at public opinion, you see plenty of diversity among Republican voters on issues where candidates have only one acceptable position. A third of Republicans think gun laws should be stricter, but no Republican elected officials do. A third of Republicans believe in marriage equality. Republicans are split on whether the minimum wage should be increased. The closest thing to unanimity you'll get among the Republican electorate is their distaste for Obamacare (especially if you call it that; if you're curious, you can find lots of poll results here).

So how does a majority in favor of a position among a party's electorate turn into absolute unanimity among its elected officials? It's the activists

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