Last month, a Norfolk Southern freight train transporting hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. In response, the Ohio Government ordered the controlled burning of several train cars, and residents within a mile radius were evacuated.
Though fewer than 5,000 people live in East Palestine, Ohio, the train derailment has been covered extensively by the national media. 73% of Americans say they have heard a significant or fair amount about the derailment in the last month, while only 12% of Americans say they have heard or read nothing about the event at all.
Furthermore, 65% of Americans say that the derailment matters a significant or fair amount to them, while only 14% say it does not matter to them at all. 57% also believe that the incident affects them personally a significant or fair amount, signalling a concern among the American public not solely for the residents of East Palestine but also for the possibility of similar events occurring to them.
Overall, when asked directly about the degree of concern they have over the incident, 40% say they are extremely concerned, and 34% say they are fairly concerned. Only 10% say they are not at all concerned.
The combination of high awareness of the accident and widespread concern about its potential implications demonstrates the national seriousness of what may seem a local incident. 26% of voters, a plurality, say President Joe Biden is most responsible for the train derailment and subsequent chemical spill. Despite not being directly in charge of either the Norfolk Southern Rail Company, the Department of Transportation, or the Environmental Protection Agency, voters seem sympathetic to the old Harry-Truman-era mantra that the buck stops at the President’s desk.
Notably, Americans apportion Biden’s responsibility similarly, regardless of their 2020 vote. 54% of those who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and 56% of those who voted for Joe Biden believe he is significantly or fairly responsible for the train derailment and subsequent chemical spill.
Second to the President, 22% of American voters say that the CEO of the Norfolk Southern Rail Company, Alan Shaw, is most responsible for the train derailment. A clear majority of voters (70%) think he is either significantly or fairly responsible for the derailment, while 12% think he is not at all responsible.
12% of voters identify Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg as the most responsible for the disaster. 55% believe that Buttigieg is significantly or fairly responsible for the derailment, while 26% say he is not at all responsible.
Beyond just individuals, a plurality of Americans (37%) fault a lack of enforcement of existing regulations for the disaster. 32%, however, believe that the train derailment and subsequent chemical spill was primarily due to a lack of the appropriate regulations. By contrast, only 11% believe that the derailment was due to current regulations containing too much complexity.
In light of the derailment-turned-ecological-disaster, voters are looking for reassurance that the authorities are giving the accident the attention it deserves. A considerable majority (66%) therefore say yes, Joe Biden should visit East Palestine in the wake of the event, against only 16% who say no, he should not.
Critically, when asked whether it was more important for Biden to last month visit East Palestine or Kyiv, Ukraine (as he ultimately did) at the end of February, 48% of voters say it was more important for him to visit the Ohio town, while 34% say it was more important to visit the warzone.
Meanwhile, Biden’s former (and potentially also future) rival in the race for President, Donald Trump, has visited the site. This visit has both caught the public’s attention and proved popular. 60% of Americans say they have heard either a significant or fair amount about his visit, while 59% of Americans approve and 18% disapprove of his decision to do so.
With the Presidential Election taking place next year and, by current polling, looking quite possibly to be a rematch of the 2020 race, events like this matter. President Biden risks being seen as responsible for the derailment and uncaring in its aftermath. Former President Trump, in contrast, appears on the side of the voters.
Altogether, in Ohio, a state Obama won twice but Biden lost by an eight-point margin, Biden risks being seen as more attentive to the ‘Great Game’ of global geopolitics than the everyday struggles of ordinary Americans–struggles which the Norfolk Southern derailment have once again highlighted.