Strong RFS Support Offers Low-Risk Opportunity for Democrats to Connect with Voters They Need to Retake Majority

Corn Field

Although relatively obscure by Washington standards, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) carries a unique level of importance and visibility in many rural states. The fact that the RFS invariably becomes a priority campaign issue for presidential primary candidates passing through Iowa serves as evidence of this policy’s regional importance. And the controversial RFS rulemaking process currently underway at EPA could push this issue even closer to the spotlight in 2016.

Against that backdrop, we also know that Democrats reached a high-water mark in 2008 as they gained control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This was due, in part, to winning back trust on the economy. Since then, Democratic support has eroded in rural areas, which resulted in losing both chambers of Congress.1

Knowing that Democrats are looking to the Midwest for opportunities to retake control of the House and Senate, Third Way decided to assess how an issue like the RFS plays for the Party in key parts of the region, especially among moderate voters.2 We looked at previous polling results and reviewed recent coverage of RFS politics. We also analyzed a previously unreported survey of several congressional districts in rural Midwestern states that have flipped from Democratic to Republican within the last three election cycles. This survey, conducted by HaystaqDNA, was made available to Third Way by the National Farmers Union. In short, we found:

  • Support for the RFS (and opposition to EPA proposals to weaken it) is a net positive for the Democratic Party.
  • While the Democratic Party has traditionally enjoyed an edge on the RFS, Republicans are well positioned to seize the issue in the event the Obama Administration issues a final rule to weaken the RFS.
  • Rural states are essential for any strategy to regain Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Moderate voters are a sizable portion of the electorate and will ultimately make the difference in close races.
  • The RFS is well known by moderate voters in these districts, is important to these voters, and the research shows that they are more likely to support pro-RFS candidates than oppose them by a two-to-one margin.
  • The RFS will not only aid the Democratic Party’s broader strategy to take back the majority, but it provides the Party with an opening for a broader conversation with these voters on energy and environmental issues.

GOP Working to Close the Image Gap on the RFS

For a number of years, Democrats have successfully campaigned on biofuels issues in rural districts and received credit for passing the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2005, as well as strengthening the policy in 2007. In the first presidential race after the RFS was enacted, then-Senator Obama campaigned on the RFS, while the Republican nominee, John McCain, opposed mandates for ethanol. In fact, the 2008 Republican platform called for an end to the RFS altogether.3 One GOP elected official from Minnesota expressed “alarm” over the official GOP position. Meanwhile, Democrats in that state pledged to make the position an election issue.4

The tenuous relationship between the Republican Party and the RFS became even more strained as the rise of the Tea Party elevated small government and anti-mandate principles within the Party’s platform. This put pressure even on some farm state Republicans to try to square their party’s ideological beliefs (and their party’s strong financial support from oil interests that oppose the biofuels mandate) with the popularity of the RFS in rural areas. In 2014, for example, then-GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst was criticized for saying, “[p]hilosophically, I’m opposed to those mandates or those subsidies that are coming from the government.”5 Even though she reiterated support for the RFS in that interview, she was attacked for not being supportive enough of it.6 Following this bump in her campaign, Ernst became more vocal in her support the RFS and her opposition to EPA’s proposed rule, which would weaken the biofuels mandate.7

Since that time, Republicans have begun to take a more active approach on the issue. The majority of the Republican presidential candidates have announced their support for the RFS.8 Former GOP Senator Jim Talent recently founded the first Republican focused pro-RFS organization, Americans for Energy Security and Innovation.9 The group recently produced an advertisement criticizing the Obama Administration’s proposal to weaken the RFS, saying this damaging blow to a policy that the President claims to support amounts to “hypocrisy.”10 In addition, while partisan tensions remain very high in Washington, a number of GOP farm state Senators joined a group of their Democratic colleagues earlier this month in a visit to the White House to reiterate their concerns over EPA’s proposed RFS rule to White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough.11

Clearly, Republicans are working to position themselves as champions of the RFS. If the Obama Administration’s EPA weakens this policy, as it has recently proposed to do, farm state Republicans could argue that they fought against these Democratic efforts—and they now have an organization in place that will help them make that argument. The outcome of this partisan competition for the RFS could have serious consequences. Races in Wisconsin and Illinois represent two of the best opportunities for Senate Democrats to unseat GOP incumbents and retake the chamber in 2016.12 In Wisconsin, local groups are already running advertisements criticizing President Obama for “breaking his promise to support the RFS.”13 And in the Illinois race, both the Democratic and Republican front-runners spoke in support of the RFS at a rally in July, where farm leaders railed against the Obama EPA’s recent proposals to weaken the RFS.14

Rural Voters Know About and Support the RFS

Earlier this month, the National Farmers Union commissioned a survey from HaystaqDNA, which targeted likely voters in six districts in rural states that flipped from Democratic to Republican in recent elections. The data was made available to Third Way for review. Five of the districts surveyed flipped into the GOP column during the 2010 election that gave Republicans control of the Senate, and one flipped in 2014.15 Democrats won all of these seats in 2008, and all but one of the seats when they won control of the House in 2006. As The New York Times noted last year, in the House, the Democratic Party can win back the majority “only if it were to win Republican-held seats at the same rate that it did in 2006 or at the same rate that Republicans flipped seats in 2010.”16 In short, these districts are the kinds that are critical to House Democratic efforts to reclaim the majority.

In the recent survey, respondents were generally familiar with the RFS, with 70% indicating they were either very or somewhat familiar with the program. When asked if a candidate for Congress’ support for the RFS would make them more likely to support that candidate, 31% of respondents said support for the RFS would make them more likely to support the candidate, versus 24% who said such a position would make them less likely to support the candidate.

Some more targeted surveys of rural voters show even stronger levels of support. For example, a 2012 survey by Farmers Pulse Opinion Research indicated 76% of farmers believe the RFS is “very important” or “somewhat important” to “the future profitability of agriculture in the U.S.”17 Interestingly, that higher level of support for the RFS came from a sample in which 71% of the voters contacted indicated they “strongly disapprove” of President Obama’s job performance.

RFS Plays Well with Moderate Voters in Rural States

While the topline results of a survey like the HaystaqDNA poll can be interesting, there are a significant number of voters within those samples who are solidly Democratic or Republican voters; unlikely to change their allegiance because of any one particular message. Setting aside the self-identified liberals and conservatives, however, allows us to look at moderate voters—a demographic that is much more likely to support candidates in either party. Third Way has long found these voters to be vital to the success of the Democratic coalition, and has studied them extensively.

Self-identified moderates have constituted a plurality of the general election electorate in every presidential election since 1976.18 Voters identifying themselves as moderates have also made up a plurality of the voters supporting the Democratic nominee in every presidential election in the same time period.19

In the HaystaqDNA survey, self-identified liberals constituted 19% of the electorate and self-identified moderates constituted 39%, compared to 38% self-identified conservatives. Given the advantage of conservatives over liberals in these districts, it is essential that Democratic candidates in these states and districts attract a significant majority of moderate voters.

As a group, these moderate voters tend to lean more Democratic than the overall sample, but nearly a third (32%) report that they tend to split their votes equally between Democrats and Republicans. These are precisely the voters that make a difference in close races in the potentially competitive districts the survey examined. They are open to messages from both parties, and they are willing to cast their votes for candidates of either party.

Energy is rarely among the top issues that influence voters.20 Therefore it is not surprising that a large portion of moderates in the HaystaqDNA poll said that a congressional candidate’s support for the RFS would make no difference in their likelihood to support that candidate (50%), as did a similar portion of the full survey sample (45%).

Still, this issue is clearly a net positive one for Democrats in swing districts—where the party needs all the help it can get. By a two-to-one margin, moderate voters in the HaystaqDNA poll said that support for the RFS will make them more likely to vote for a congressional candidate (33%) versus those voters who say it will make them less likely to support that candidate (17%).

To be sure, the RFS is not a silver bullet in these districts. But it is an issue that uniquely cuts across party lines in terms of support, and affords Democrats the opportunity to build support among swing voters.

To underscore this point, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi created the Democratic Rural Working Group in 2005 to ensure that the Democratic agenda included priorities important to rural America.21 When the RWG issued its energy report in 2006, the Speaker herself made the announcement and said, “From corn in the Midwest, to soybeans in North Carolina, to sugar beets in Minnesota, we grow the crops that can be converted into the biofuels that power our cars. It is good for the environment, good for our economy, good for our farmers, and good for our national security.”22 The report became a tool for vulnerable Democratic incumbents and rural Democratic challengers to make clear that the Democratic Party had a plan for rural economies. When Democrats regained control of the House the following year, they led the charge to update and enhance the RFS, further cementing the association between the policy and the Party.

RFS Presents an Opportunity to Discuss Energy and Environmental Issues with Key Rural Voters

As Gallup noted last year, “climate change and the quality of the environment rank near the bottom of a list of concerns for Americans.”23 In a battery of 15 concerns, climate change ranked 14th, following “the quality of the environment” at number 13. Among Republican voters, climate change ranked dead last.24 That said, there is increasing acknowledgement by voters across the country that climate change is real. A 2014 survey by ORC International, released during the climate talks in Lima, indicated that 83% of Americans expressed belief that climate change “is occurring.”25 In the Northeast and South, 84% of respondents expressed that belief, compared to 86% of Western voters, and only 78% of Midwestern voters.

But while climate change may be a slightly tougher sell in the Midwest, it’s interesting to note the rationale for supporting the RFS in the rural survey. While these voters are more likely to be aware of the regional economic benefits of the biofuel industry, the highest ranked argument among moderates in the HaystaqDNA survey is that the RFS is “part of a clean energy future” (25%), which ranked above helping the U.S. “achieve energy independence” (22%), creating “jobs in rural America” (17%), and lowering gas prices (16%). Even though the ORC data suggests that climate change is slightly more difficult to sell in the Midwest, the HaystaqDNA data suggests that the RFS and messages around biofuels provide an opening for Democratic candidates to engage with these voters on climate and energy related messages.

The HaystaqDNA poll provides another reason to believe that voters in rural states may be receptive to a Democratic message on energy. Surprisingly, even though self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals in this sample by a two-to-one margin, when asked which party does a better job on energy policy, the sample was evenly split with 29% saying the Democrats do a better job and 28% saying the Republicans do a better job.

The Risks of Strongly Supporting the RFS are Minimal

When looking more broadly at the survey, there is very little risk for Democratic candidates embracing the RFS. Of those voters who are strongly unsupportive of the RFS, 70% report voting always or mostly Republican, and only 10% indicate that they plan to vote Democratic. So basically, the voters they might displease by supporting the RFS probably wouldn’t vote for them regardless.

We’ve already established that strong support for the RFS could help Democrats appeal to moderate voters, but the survey also indicated a pro-RFS position is exceedingly popular with the Party’s base in these districts. Among respondents who say they always vote Democratic, 58% support the RFS and only 12% oppose it.

Some analysts have speculated that concerns over the impact that the RFS could have on gasoline prices was a major factor in the Obama Administration’s decision to propose weaker RFS targets.26 Not only has the connection between the RFS and the price at the pump been refuted,27 this argument (a favorite of the oil industry) doesn’t seem to carry much weight with target voters. When read a summary of arguments against the RFS, concern over the policy increasing gasoline prices was the top choice of only 9% of moderate respondents in the HaystaqDNA poll, far overshadowed by concerns relating to government regulation, food prices, and other environmental arguments.


Given the popularity of the RFS among the moderate voters necessary for Democratic candidates to win, the limited political liability of supporting the RFS, and efforts by the GOP to claim the mantle of RFS champion, it would behoove Democrats to maximize strong support for the biofuels mandate in the Party’s brand. Elevating this issue in the Party’s platform offers a low-risk opportunity to connect with a group of voters that will be particularly important in Democratic efforts to regain majorities in the House and Senate.

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  1. Democrats took 48% of the rural vote in 2006 and 34% in 2010. See Poll, CNN, Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at: and Poll, CNN, Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  2. Rhodes Cook, “Holding on to a House Majority,” Analysis, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Center for Politics, University of Virginia, January 31, 2013. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  3. “2008 Republican Platform,” Republican National Committee, 2008, p. 30. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  4. Ron Way, “GOP platform’s new opposition to ethanol subsidies has ag world buzzing,” MinnPost, September 9, 2008. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  5. Joseph Morton, “Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst accused of cozying up to Big Oil,” Omaha World-Herald, July 31, 2014. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  6.  Joseph Morton, “Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst accused of cozying up to Big Oil,” Omaha World-Herald, July 31, 2014. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  7. Erica Martinson, “Ethanol fuels clash in corn country,” Politico, July 31, 2014. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  8. Amanda Peterka, “Campaign 2016: In Iowa, GOP hopefuls differ on support for etanol mandate,” Environment & Energy Daily, March 9, 2015. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  9. Ann Bailey, “New organization formed to advocate for RFS,” Biomass Magazine, September 30, 2015. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  10. “Hypocrisy,” Americans for Energy Security & Innovation, October 15, 2015. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  11. “Klobuchar, Durbin and 12 Other Senators Hold Bipartisan Meeting with White House Chief of Staff to Push for Strong Renewable Fuel Standard,” Press Release, The Office of Senator Amy Klobuchar. Accessed October 30, 2015. Available at: (This included Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Joni Ernst (R-IA), John Thune (R-SD), and Mike Rounds (R-SD)).

  12. Steven Shepard, “Democrats face narrow path to retake Senate in 2016,” Politico, July 6, 2015. Accessed October 30, 2015. Available at:

  13. “WBFA Announces Ad Campaign To Protect The RFS,” Wisconsin Corn Grower’s Association, September 30, 2015. Accessed October 30, 2015. Available at:

  14. Jerry Hagstrom, “Kirk, Duckworth speak at corn RFS rally,” The Hagstrom Report, July 15, 2015. Accessed October 30, 2015. Available at:

  15. The survey consisted of a total of 4,471 respondents from IL-12, IL-14, KS-3, MO-4, OH-15, and SD-AL.

  16. Nate Cohn, “Why Democrats Can’t Win the House,” The New York Times, September 6, 2014. Accessed October 30, 2015. Available ata:

  17. Sarah Gonzalez, “Agri-Pulse Poll shows most farmers will vote Romney, blame Democrats on farm bill,” Agri-Pulse, November 5, 2012. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  18. Based on exit polls from every election between 1976 and 2012.

  19. Based on exit polls from every election between 1976 and 2012.

  20. Rebecca Riffkin, “Climate Change Not a Top Worry in U.S.,” Gallup, March 12, 2014. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  21. Nancy Pelosi, “Pelosi Selects Etheridge and Herseth to Co-Chair Democratic Rural Working Group,” Vote Smart, May 6, 2005. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  22. “Pelosi: Democratic Energy Plan Will Send Our Dollars to Midwest, Not Middle East,” Press Release, The Office of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  23. Riffkin, “Climate Change Not a Top Worry in U.S.”

  24. Riffkin, “Climate Change Not a Top Worry in U.S.” 

  25. Doyle Rice, “Poll: 83% of Americans say climate is changing,” USA Today, December 2, 2014. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  26. Jim Lane, “Obama Messes with the US Renewable Fuel Standard,” Renewable Energy World, November 19, 2013. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at:

  27. Sebastien Pouliot and Bruce A. Babcock, “Impact of Increased Ethanol Mandates on Prices at the Pump,” January 2014. Accessed October 29, 2015. Available at: