By Emma White

June 14, 2012

It is hard to open a newspaper or turn on the television – or perhaps have Thanksgiving dinner with your extended family – and not be aware of the extent to which Americans’ views are divided by political party. We see large partisan divisions across nearly every issue we examine, from health care reform to government spending to gay marriage. Politics even affect Americans’ perceptions of their own economic experiences. For example, a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that Republicans are more than twice as likely as Democrats to say they are not as well off financially as they were before Obama became President. The Pew Research Center’s American Values study, just published, shows that this polarization has been on the increase over the past 20 years.

However, although it is unusual to find an issue that brings voters together across the values and beliefs that divide us, such issues do exist, and in Ohio, protecting Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes is one. Our recent poll of general election voters in Ohio finds that large majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents support the federal government continuing its $300 million funding program “to improve the condition of the Great Lakes by cleaning up toxic waste and bacteria, reducing run-off pollution from cities and farms, and protecting and rebuilding wetlands” (63% of Republicans, 72% of independents and 79% of Democrats support).

The threat of what Asian Carp could do to Lake Erie provides another example of cross-partisan agreement. Majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and independents express high levels of concern about Asian Carp when informed of this “large invasive species that breeds rapidly and could destroy the other fish and ecosystems of Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes” (55% of Republicans, 57% of independents and 58% of Democrats say they would be very concerned if the Carp got into Lake Erie). Support for constructing “a physical barrier in the Chicago canals to keep the Asian Carp from swimming from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes” is twenty percentage points higher than opposition, and we find very little partisan distinction in support (Republicans: 48%; independents: 50%; Democrats 48%).

This should be a wake-up call to both Presidential campaigns that are so focused on the Buckeye State. As they campaign in Ohio, they will be asked to endorse continued federal funding to restore the Great Lakes and a plan to do battle with the invading Asian Carp. There is possible political payoff for Obama and Romney in embracing Great Lakes restoration – and possible political harm to coming down on the wrong side. It is true that environmental protection does not usually take center stage in Presidential elections and exit polls typically show environmental concerns to be secondary to worries about the economy and national security issues. At the same time, however, in an election that could be decided by a small number of votes, a candidate’s position on Great Lakes restoration may tell voters in Ohio whether he understands and cares about the things they value. To be successful in Ohio and other swing states, candidates must not only hold their base vote but also attract independent, unaffiliated voters. From our polling, it is clear that standing up to protect Lake Erie and taking action to beat back the invasive Asian carp are winning issues among this critical constituency.

During Presidential campaigns, it is especially easy to get lost in the partisan divisions and lose sight of the issues where voters actually come together and agree. Perhaps as the candidates are traveling the state this summer, they will hear a little bit from Ohioans of all political stripes about how much they value Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes and want the government to play its part in protecting them.

Telephone survey conducted by Fallon Research and Communications, Inc. on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation/Healing Our Waters Coalition from questions written by Belden Russonello Strategists LLC among 804 general election Ohio voters from May 14-18, 2012. Margin of sampling error is ±3.5 percentage points. The full question text and responses are available.