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Joe Manchin: The Voice of Moderate Democrats? Or a Party Outlier?

Running Numbers by Dina Smeltz and Emily Sullivan

As President Biden heads to the UN climate summit, one Senator has gutted his plans for clean energy reform.

Congressional Democrats are scrambling to finish negotiations on infrastructure and social policy bills in advance of President Biden’s appearance at the UN climate summit in Glasgow next week. The social policy and climate bill has already been stripped of its most ambitious climate provisions, including much of a clean electricity program that would reward utility companies that switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and penalize those that do not make the switch. However, passing even a pared-down version of the bill would signal to the international community that the United States, historically the world’s largest polluter, is serious about cleaning up its energy sector.

So far, progress on the bills has been delayed by two key holdouts: Democratic Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

While Sinema’s objections to the legislation are mainly about increasing tax rates for corporations and the highest income individuals, Manchin is primarily responsible for the dramatic scaling back of the clean electricity program that has taken place in recent weeks.

Manchin’s politics and position likely represents the views of many constituents in his coal-mining state. But nationwide, Democrats have grown increasingly concerned about climate change. In the most recent Chicago Council surveys, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have consistently vied for the top spot on Democrats’ lists of threats to the country. In an August 23-26, 2021 Chicago Council-Ipsos Survey

Are Moderate and Conservative Democrats in Sync with Manchin?

One argument about Manchin’s motivations has pointed to the ideological split in the Democratic party between more liberal members and those moderate or conservative members. But does this split in ideology also find a party split on climate issues?

In the 2021 Chicago Council Survey, 60 percent of self-described Democrats identified themselves as being slightly liberal, liberal, or extremely liberal, whereas 40 percent identified as being moderate or conservative to some degree. When organizing the data in this way, we find that while majorities of both Democratic camps think that limiting climate change should be a very important US foreign policy goal, the percentages are much higher for the liberals (88%) than they are for the moderates (65%).

Bar graph showing opinion on limiting climate change

Other polls show that Democratic liberals and moderates/conservatives are not that different when it comes to the clean energy policies at the heart of the Senate debate. A December 2020 survey conducted jointly by Climate Change Communication programs at Yale and George Mason University found that nine in ten liberal Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (93%) and eight in 10 moderate/conservative Democrats and leaners (81%) think developing sources of clean energy should be a high priority for the US government. In particular, large majorities of both liberal and moderate/conservative Democrats and Democratic leaners support a range of clean energy policies.

Bar graph showing democratic views on clean energy

Bigger Than Domestic Politics

At COP26 in Glasgow, President Biden hopes to point to the new US legislation as proof that the United States is serious about leading the effort to fight global warming. That may be hard to prove without the clean energy program that was at the heart of this effort. Nevertheless, the 2021 Chicago Council Survey shows that majorities of Democrats do think the United States should play a leading role on this issue, though Democratic liberals (92%) are more emphatic in this view than Democratic moderates/conservatives (67%).

Bar graph showing opinion on international leadership on climate change

The data show that there are some differences between liberal and moderate/conservative Democrats in the degree of priority they place on climate change, but taken together, at least on the clean energy policies, Democrats seem to be on the same page about transitioning the country away from fossil fuel. There is no denying that the switch from coal to clean energy would be a challenge for West Virginia’s economy, but allowing climate change to continue unchecked will undoubtedly bring its own challenges for this flood-prone state further down the line. Manchin might be a hero in his home state for now, but he seems to be holding most of the Democratic constituency hostage on what may be the last chance to enact major climate legislation before the midterm elections.

About the Authors
Senior Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Headshot for Dina Smeltz
Dina Smeltz, a polling expert, has more than 25 years of experience designing and fielding international social and political surveys. Prior to joining the Council to lead its annual survey of American attitudes on US foreign policy, she served in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department's Office of Research from 1992 to 2008.
Headshot for Dina Smeltz
Research Assistant, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Emily Sullivan joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021 as a research assistant on the Public Opinion team.