THE DEBATE HAS BARELY BEGUN…. Rasmussen asked Americans what a cap-and-trade policy is. Not whether they liked the idea, just whether they have some sense as to what the policy is all about. There was widespread confusion. (via David Weigel)

The gap between Capitol Hill and Main Street is huge when it comes to the so-called “cap-and-trade” legislation being considered in Congress. So wide, in fact, that few voters even know what the proposed legislation is all about.

Given a choice of three options, just 24% of voters can correctly identify the cap-and-trade proposal as something that deals with environmental issues. A slightly higher number (29%) believe the proposal has something to do with regulating Wall Street while 17% think the term applies to health care reform. A plurality (30%) have no idea.

So, nearly a third admit they’ve never heard of the idea, while nearly half (46%) think they know what it is, but don’t really.

Reading this, I’m reminded of a David Broder column from a month ago that argued that Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal was in deep trouble because political independents weren’t convinced the idea has merit.

Once political independents, who like the idea of clean air, grasped that cap-and-trade would mean a big tax increase for them, Republican opposition was reinforced and Democratic support weakened to the point that the Obama plan may already be doomed this year.

Now, Broder was wrong about the “big tax increases,” but more importantly, his argument was premised on the idea that voters not only know what a cap-and-trade policy is, but knew enough about it to consider the proposal on the merits.

If Rasmussen’s numbers are right, and they seem fairly reasonable, there’s absolutely no reason to think public perceptions should be “reinforcing” or “weakening” any contingent’s position on the issue. Americans can’t have strong opinions about a complex policy they know very little about.

As the debate unfolds, maybe proponents will be able to sell cap-and-trade to the public, maybe not. Either way, the debate over energy policy has barely begun.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.