by Abby Smith
Democrats want to use climate change to build a winning coalition in 2020, not just to energize the party’s left-wing base but also to pick off center-right voters fed up with President Trump.
The strategy bucks conventional election wisdom. Typically, candidates veer toward the center heading into a general election, tempering any rhetoric around polarizing issues such as climate change.
But climate change politics have shifted dramatically in the last few years. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, unveiled his most aggressive climate plan yet last week, with the general election just beginning to kick into high gear.
“The assumption has always been, incorrectly, that climate is a dangerous place for Democrats,” said Andrew Baumann, vice president of research for pollster Global Strategy Group.
Over the last few months, Baumann has surveyed voters’ attitudes on climate change for environmental and Democratic political groups, including Climate Power 2020, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Center for American Progress.
What he has found is climate change has “now become a real political weapon for Democrats,” he told the Washington Examiner.
In fact, polls are telling Democrats they can pick up voters by pressing hard on climate change and drawing a stark contrast with Trump. Some of those, such as independents in swing states and center-right women, are voters Trump desperately needs to keep.
Baumann, citing polling he conducted recently for Climate Power 2020, said when the ballot was framed as a choice between a Democrat supporting “bold climate action” and a Republican opposing it, the ballot shifted from a 10-point lead to a 24-point lead for Democrats. That included significant gains for Democrats among younger voters, Hispanics, independents in swing states, and center-right white women, he said.
The survey also found people question Trump’s credibility on climate change and aren’t convinced by some of Republicans’ attacks on the Green New Deal.
“When [Trump’s] trying to attack the Green New Deal and talk about airplanes and banning hamburgers and cows, that’s good for us. We want to have that fight,” said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power 2020.
“We know how much people have moved on this issue,” added Lodes, a veteran of the Hillary Clinton campaign and Obama administration. “They are wanting the government to do more.”
That’s a particular threat to Trump because he needs to keep as many voters as he can, pollsters say.
Trump rose to victory in 2016 by winning the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, but he won those states by roughly 70,000 votes, or half of 1% of the total votes cast, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
That’s a “razor thin” margin of victory, he said. Trump “can’t afford to lose anybody.”
Overall, the Climate Power 2020 survey found 71% of people support “bold” climate policies from the federal government.
“Democrats can go too far on climate, but the room they have is so much larger than conventional wisdom suggests,” Baumann said.
That’s in part because old arguments that climate policies would hurt the economy aren’t resonating as much beyond the Republicans’ base. Democrats are also shaping their climate policies around creating jobs, arguing climate policy is “good economics,” said Narayan Subramanian, a fellow for Data for Progress.
The timing is ripe for that argument, too, as pandemic-induced recession has prompted discussions of an economic stimulus. Synergies between climate and economic policy have focused attention on a “robust clean energy platform,” Subramanian said.
“The labor movement is also starting to see the clear benefits of clean energy policy,” he added.
In fact, Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor union, praised Biden’s more aggressive climate plan. “Quality jobs and labor rights are key to rebuilding our infrastructure — and America’s middle class,” Trumka said in a tweet, calling Biden’s plan “strong on all these.”
Fossil fuel-heavy unions aren’t as convinced, and they have expressed fears Biden’s climate plans could jeopardize their jobs. Nonetheless, Democratic pollsters and environmentalists see bigger gains than losses for Biden if he leans into climate change, especially since Trump isn’t.
It might also be a bigger risk for Biden not to campaign aggressively on climate change. Today’s highly polarized U.S. politics mean presidential elections are increasingly about turning out as much of a party’s base as possible, rather than trying to woo “mythical swing voters” who are “increasingly unicorns,” Leiserowitz said.
“Biden still has to make the case to his progressive base. He was not their first choice,” he added. “Many of them, even many of the people in the climate movement, were not entirely sold on him as a climate warrior.”
That’s likely why Biden established a unity task force with former left-wing rival Bernie Sanders on climate change, staffed with several Sanders surrogates, Leiserowitz said. One of the leaders of that task force was Green New Deal author Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
Biden’s updated climate plan incorporates many of its recommendations, including a goal to eliminate power sector carbon emissions by 2035. So, too, does the Democratic National Committee’s draft party platform.
Democrats’ concern for climate change has steadily grown in the last few years, putting the issue on par with perennial election issues for the party, such as healthcare costs.
In November, liberal Democrats ranked climate change as their number one voting priority, according to a survey from the Yale Program on Climate Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.
“That’s unprecedented in American political history,” Leiserowitz said. “You’ve never seen climate change be at the very top of the list.”
In an April survey, even as the pandemic raged and unemployment surged, that prioritization didn’t change, he said. If anything, public concerns about climate change increased slightly, he added.
Pew Research Center polling from April, too, found 88% of Democrats consider climate change a major threat. A June survey found strong majorities of both liberal and more moderate Democrats support more aggressive climate policies, including a carbon tax, stricter emissions limits for power plants, and more stringent fuel efficiency standards for cars.
“It’s clear from our data that Democrats want to hear about climate change from their candidate in the general election,” said Alec Tyson, an associate director of science research at Pew.