Will Space Play in the 2016 US Election?

It might be only March of 2015, but the race (slog?) is on to be the next president of the United States. Only 589 days to go! It’s a race that some believe will cost the nation upwards of five billion dollars; that’s about 7.5 Mars missions for those of you out there counting. The campaign, though, is more than just a vehicle for terrible campaign ads and embarrassing debate gaffes; it’s also one of the few opportunities for the country to have a discussion about its  national priorities in the coming years. So, what are the chances that the exploration of space will be in that discussion?

Scientific research is a low priority for most Americans. Credit: Pew Research Center
Scientific research is a low priority for most Americans. Credit: Pew Research Center

On the surface, the odds don’t seem that favorable. Back in January, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans to determine which issues citizens felt their leaders should be prioritizing. Space exploration wasn’t called out as its own topic, but of the 23 possibilities considered by Pew, “scientific research” was ranked third-to-last, representing a priority for just over half of Democrats and a third of Republicans. The margin of error for the smallest subgroup was 6.1 percentage points. The poll shows that the public is as concerned as ever with the perennial “big issues”: the War on Terror, the economy and jobs, and social services like education and Social Security. These will undoubtedly dominate the national conversation and leave little room for discussion of our scientific priorities. And, even if science does see the light of day during the campaign, politicians tend to look for places of disagreement. As NASA remains one of the government agencies most favored by citizens, it’s not likely to stir up much trouble here either.

Peer a little closer, though, and many potential candidates have strong ties to the space exploration industry. Headlining this group is the only high-profile contender to have officially declared himself: Senator Ted Cruz (R, TX). Sen. Cruz is the new chairman of the Space, Science, and Competitiveness subcommittee, the Senate body which oversees NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Joining him on the subcommittee is another likely presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R, FL). Florida, of course, is home to Kennedy Space Center, the launch complex for most US space activities. The economic impact of the so-called “Space Coast” puts space exploration at the forefront of Florida politicians’ minds and the state was also formerly lead by yet another likely Republican presidential candidate, Gov. Jeb Bush.

On the Democratic side, the picture remains much murkier. With no one so far willing to declare themselves running while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remains on the fence, the need for speculation is much higher. But, both Secretary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden ran campaigns in 2008, offering us a glimpse at how space might play in their future endeavors. Then-Senator Biden had little to say on space during his campaign, although he did advocate for working with China as an equal partner, a view that might still draw some criticism today. Then-Senator Clinton spoke more broadly on her views for space, but it never truly entered the mainstream of the debate.

Disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is highest among scientific issues. Credit: Pew Research Center
Disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is highest among scientific issues. Credit: Pew Research Center

Even if space exploration doesn’t become a central issue of the coming campaign, it could well leak in from another direction: climate change. NASA is at the forefront of climate science research and considers it a core tenet of its research mandate. During the 2008 campaign, Clinton supported the expansion of NASA’s Earth observing program. Earlier this month, Sen. Cruz took the opposite position, suggesting to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden that the agency focus more on exploring outer space and less on studying the Earth. With climate change likely to become a flashpoint during the campaign (the Pew poll discussed above shows climate science research is a priority for 54% of Democrats, but just 15% of Republicans), NASA and the NSF might find themselves dragged into the larger fight.

Finally, what about all the candidates down the ballot? Will space exploration be important in House, Senate, and gubernatorial races? What about the myriad of local and state elections? The answer here is probably a more definitive “no.” Unlike most other issues, space exploration is one that resides virtually solely at the federal level. With the possible exception of a few space-heavy regions like Florida and Texas, issues like education, unemployment, and taxation are far more likely to dominate the conversation.

If there’s one truth about elections, however, it’s that you never really know if something will be important until it happens. With that in mind, we’ll continue to keep an eye on the coming races to see if outer space become a down-to-Earth issue!