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Hu Jintao, Pope Francis, ... and Oregon's political divide

For the past two months, Oregon voters have watched a parade of personalities march across the national stage. From Chinese President Hu Jintao to Pope Francis to presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, they’re all talking about issues that are important to Oregonians, including consumerism, income inequality and climate change.

Adm DavisThese three issues are deeply interconnected and, after a close look at the opinion research, tell us something about politics in Oregon. So, listen up candidates for local and state office. Unfortunately for Republicans, the numbers don’t look good, and considering another set of numbers — party registration numbers — Republican candidates for public office in Oregon might want to reconsider their positions on some things, if they ever want to do more than win a party primary. As of August, it is Democrats — 818,399; Non-affiliated/Others — 704,974; and Republicans — 643,928.

DHM Research has been studying Oregonians’ values and beliefs for decades, and one of the questions we continue to ask relates to perceptions of consumerism. In our most recent Oregon Values and Beliefs study, a majority of Oregonians (57 percent) agreed with the statement “Our country would be better off if we all consume less,” while about a third (34 percent) agreed that “We need to buy things to support a strong economy.”

Sixty-two percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Non-affiliated/Others felt we’d be better off consuming less, compared to 49 percent of Republicans. At least a plurality of almost every demographic group — including Oregonians who identified themselves as politically conservative on economic issues — agreed that we do not need to buy things to support a strong economy and we would be better off consuming less. The only exception is Eastern Oregon, where opinion was split: 46 percent buy things, 44 percent consume less.

For some Oregonians, talking about the income gap, or saying there needs to be some redistribution of wealth, amounts to nothing less than heresy. Enter the Marxists according to their detractors: the Pope and Bernie Sanders.

Sure, there are some Oregon voters who disagree with the statement “Our society would be better off if the distribution of wealth is more equal.” The problem for Oregon Republicans is that they’re just about the only ones. While 66 percent of Republicans disagree with the statement, only 12 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of Non-affiliated/Others feel similarly. Or looking at it the other way, 83 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Non-affiliated/Others believe that our society needs to redistribute wealth in some way or another.

Are you wondering why the wealthy and big businesses in Oregon are concerned about some taxation proposals that labor has been considering for 2016? It’s because they’re seeing numbers like these in their polling.

There are other numbers they may be seeing as well, such as: 68 percent of Oregonians (88 percent Democrats, 65 percent Non-affiliated/Others, 38 percent Republicans) in agreement about needing “to dramatically reduce the inequalities between the rich and the poor, whites and people of color, and men and women.” This is a theme that Pope Francis has hit hard on since ascending to the papacy. It resonates with Oregonians. So does his message related to climate change.

Employing a wide range of formats and wording, we regularly ask questions measuring Oregonians’ attitudes about climate change. What we have seen over the years is that Oregonians are concerned about climate change, feel that we need to do something about it, and are willing to change their behavior.

Seventy-three percent of Oregonians agree with the statement “Climate change requires us to change our way of life, such as driving less or living more simply.” A majority of both parties agree. Yes, you read that correctly, 54 percent of Oregon Republicans agree that climate change requires lifestyle changes. Meanwhile, Democrats and Non-affiliated/Others are in even stronger agreement, 86 percent and 74 percent, respectively.

But what about economic development? What’s more important over the next 10 years, economic growth or addressing climate change? A different question, different numbers, but more indication of the importance Oregonians assign to doing something about climate change. Forty percent of Oregonians feel it would be undesirable if over the next 10 years economic growth is more important than addressing climate change, while 17 percent are neutral. Thirty-seven percent believe that economic growth is more important, including a whopping 66 percent of Republicans, 20 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Non-affiliated/Others.

On all three issues — consumerism, income inequality and climate change — there is a significant party divide in Oregon. However, there is one thing that Pope Francis has repeatedly encouraged us to do that we are in agreement about: the need to put aside our differences, come together and address the issues affecting the well-being of humanity. A majority of Oregon Democrats, Republicans and Non-affiliated/Others feel it would be desirable if over the next 10 years “Oregonians from diverse backgrounds find common ground and work together to make progress addressing the critical issues we face as a state.”

Good news, right? We’re finally in agreement about something important. The bad news is that less than half of us, regardless of our party registration, feel that it is likely that Oregonians will come together over the next 10 years and effect positive change. In other words, we really want to find common ground and work together, but we’re very skeptical about the probability it will happen in Oregon over the next 10 years.

We’ve got a ways to go. It is good to know the Pope is praying for us. We’re going to need it. In the meantime, candidates for public office in Oregon: Be careful how you talk about consumerism, income inequality and climate change.

Adam Davis, a founding principal in DHM Research, has been conducting opinion research in Oregon for more than 35 years.

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