How much do Iowans care about ethanol?

Not as much as they used to, poll suggests, but results open to debate

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A free-market think tank has made a seven-figure ad buy to alert caucusgoers of the environmental impact of corn ethanol and the fact that Iowans don’t care about it as a voting issue.

The American Council for Capital Formation — and a coalition of oil refiners, consumer and tax policy advocates, anti-hunger activists, environmental and conservation groups and food producers — are behind the ad that calls the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) “an unfortunate case of good intentions gone bad.”

The message to both Democrats and Republican competing in the first-in-the-nation caucuses is that Iowans don’t know or care very much about ethanol and the RFS.

“For as long as anyone can remember, conventional political wisdom dictated that candidates had no choice but to support ever-expanding corn ethanol mandates to win in Iowa,” said George David Banks, president of the American Council for Capital Formation.

“Unfortunately, they forgot to ask actual Iowans what they thought about it,” Banks said. “As this polling makes clear, not only aren’t folks in the nation’s largest corn-producing state paying particularly close attention to the back-and-forth over the RFS, they’re definitely not using it as some sort of litmus test in determining who to vote for. That might qualify as a revelation to the political class in Washington, but something tells me actual Iowans won’t be too surprised to hear that.”

When asked to compare the RFS and corn ethanol mandates to other issues they may be following, Iowans ranked the RFS dead last among a list of 10 issues, according to the American Council poll. Just 19 percent of Iowans say the RFS and federal corn ethanol mandates are very important to them, while 45 percent say they are somewhat important and 35 percent say they are not important at all.

The television commercial by SmarterFuelFuture.org, which is part of a statewide buy that will run through the caucuses, quotes former Vice President Al Gore saying, “First-generation biofuel was a mistake.”

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said it would be a mistake to put any stock in a poll of the point of view being pushed by the American Council or SmarterFuelFuture.org, which is a coalition of frozen pizza makers, poultry producers, a petrochemical trade association and the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

“Even if you overlook that it was a push-button poll, not live-operator, which are notoriously inaccurate for these types of things,” Shaw said, “everything they highlight is crap because they’re asking general election voters about the caucuses. That’d be like asking me about college basketball: I may watch some of the tournament, but I don’t have a clue what’s going on right now.”

However, the American Council poll found that a majority of Iowans — consistent across party lines — indicated they don’t want candidates to spend a lot of time talking about federal ethanol mandates.

Whether a presidential candidate supports or opposes the RFS has little to no impact on Iowans’ likelihood to vote for that individual, according to 56 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of independents, the American Council poll found.

That’s not news to Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson.

“I’d been claiming that ethanol support has waned, but survey data validates it,” he said. “Good. I wasn’t making it up.”

The importance of ethanol as a voting issue has declined since the 2004 and 2008 election cycles because the United States was then “extremely energy sensitive, believing we were under the thumb of Mideast sultanates and tyrants — that our energy dependence was analogous to being a hostage,” Swenson said.

Also the demand for energy has declined since the Great Recession, Swenson said, and there is little consumer demand for increasing “normal” gasoline from a 10 percent ethanol blend to a 15 percent blend or higher.

And finally, Swenson said, shale gas has changed everything.

“We’ve gone from a position of energy dependence to one of incredible energy strength worldwide,” he said. “Supplies are abundant … and energy independence no longer is a function of biofuels.”

Shaw, however, doesn’t buy Swenson’s arguments, and he found good news in the American Council poll results. For examples, a finding that 50 percent of Iowans believe ethanol is a top 10 general election issue — even before the caucuses and primaries that will determine the nominees — is “outstanding for us.”

According to the poll, 37 percent of respondents “who aren’t yet engaged already saying it impacts their vote is actually very high,” Shaw said. “It will only go up during general election process. I’d say that’s a great base to start from for the general (election).”

The best news in the poll, however, was the response to a question asking whether a candidate’s opposition to the RFS would make an Iowan more or less likely to vote for that candidate, Shaw said. More than half, 53 percent, said they would be more likely to oppose that candidate.

“This is the key finding of the entire survey, and it says that in a tight general election that pits pro-RFS vs. anti-RFS, the RFS issue could very likely swing Iowa’s electoral votes to the pro-RFS candidate,” Shaw said.

See the poll here.

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