The President and Nuclear Power

If anyone doubts that President Obama did at least a little reaching across the aisle in his State of the Union address last night, consider nuclear power. His call to expand it is most popular in some of his weakest support groups – and quite less so in his base.

We polled on this in August, finding 52 percent support for building more nuclear plants, up a bit from 46 percent eight years previously – but with sharp divisions by partisanship, ideology, age and sex. It also has a strong NIMBY component, with support steeply lower if a plant’s to be built relatively near your community.

Support for more nuclear plants in our poll reached 61 percent among Republicans and 55 percent among independents, the crucial center where Obama’s been in trouble of late. Among Democrats, by contrast, it dropped to 41 percent, with nearly six in 10 opposed.

Ideology tells a similar story. Conservatives favor building more nuclear plants by a 23-point margin. Moderates – remember the middle – by a closer 54-44 percent. Liberals, on the other hand, oppose it as broadly as conservatives are in support.

Age provides another interesting comparison. Obama’s been most popular by far among young adults, a group critical to his election. Yet they oppose nuclear plants by significant margin. Support’s highest among seniors, long Obama’s weakest support group by age; they favor nuclear power by a vast 67-28 percent.

One more difference is sex, albeit with a less directly political connection. Men favor nuclear plant construction by 2-1, 64 to 33 percent. Women, by contrast, are opposed, by a 17-point margin.

As noted, there’s a significant not-in-my-back-yard element to these views. Support for building nuclear plants drops to 35 percent if it’d be within 50 miles of your home – down by almost identical amounts, 15 to 19 points, among Democrats, independents and Republicans alike. Obama also called for “making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development,” a notion that received broader support in our August survey, although without the “offshore” aspect specified; we found 64 percent support for increased oil and gas drilling in general. (We asked about offshore drilling in 2008; support was about the same.)

That was surpassed by support for other energy initiatives: the long-popular development of more solar and wind power (91 percent in favor), higher fuel-efficiency standards (85 percent), electric car technology (82 percent) and requiring more energy conservation in the commercial sector (78 percent) as well as by consumers (73 percent). All these are non-controversial.

There’s been far less consensus on nuclear energy. And while Obama previously has expressed support for finding ways “to safely harness nuclear power," including during the presidential campaign, what’s interesting about his direct and high-profile comment last night – “that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country” – are the groups to which the notion appeals.

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