Environmental issues have never ranked high on the list of issues that drive most voters to the polls. But this year, Tom Steyer – a former hedge fund manager and billionaire – has pledged to spend $50 million dollars in a few key races around the country, hoping to make climate change a central issue. This spending begs a question: can talking about global warming actually win elections?
Steyer’s operation in New Hampshire, NextGen Climate, has 24 full-time staff, and 5 field offices with two more slated to open in the coming weeks.
“We’ve had a pretty large presence, I think a lot of people have seen the orange shirts at this point,” says Pete Kavanaugh, who managed President Obama’s New Hampshire campaign in 2012, and is heading up NextGen in the Granite State. “At community events, at farmer’s markets, just about any place you can go, and then a significant presence on the doors.”
Kavanaugh claims there are roughly 100 volunteers pounding pavement every day.
According to Federal Elections Commission data, NextGen Climate has poured $3.1 million dollars into opposing Scott Brown’s run for Senate.
That makes it the biggest outside spender in New Hampshire politics. And it’s not the only environmental group dropping money into this race. The League of Conservation voters announced Friday it would spend another $400 thousand on attack ads against Brown.
“Never Been the Number 1 Issue”
Spending on this scale to talk about the environment is unusual to say the least, because for most voters it’s not a priority.
“I think that climate has been a second-tier issue,” says Karen Hicks, a Democratic strategist and a veteran of Hilary Clinton’s and Howard Dean’s campaigns, “I think that candidates of both parties are always looking for the message that is motivational and important to the broadest population. So, they’re really focused on getting 50-percent-plus-one votes on Election Day.”
To put it another way, pollster Andy Smith of the UNH survey center in terms of votes, climate change probably won’t have a real impact.
“We’ve seen in New Hampshire it’s really never been the number one issue for voters.”
He says most vote based principally on party identification, and the truly independent voters will likely sit out this midterm election. The last time Smith asked about voter’s concerns, only 2% said it was a topic of family discussion, ranking 12th out of 16.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that most of the messaging from environmental groups is about “big oil” and the billionaire Koch brothers instead of climate change.
“When you bring the Koch brothers into the discussion and folks see that Scott Brown stands up for them, it really crystalizes the fact, whose side he’s on,” says Jeff Gohringer with the League of Conservation voters.
Tax breaks for the super-wealthy are just more concrete something than 2 feet of sea-level rise, sometime between 50 and 80 years from now.
Just Getting Them Talking
At least one researcher thinks the idea that climate can’t be a winner in the voting booth is overblown, and it comes down to how you ask the question of what issues matter.
If you ask voters “What’s the biggest problem facing America today?” Climate change doesn’t fare well.
“Nobody says global warming, it literally is down there at zero,” says Jon Krosnick, a political scientist at Stanford, who studies issue voters. But when you ask what will be the biggest problem facing the world in the future? “Climate change actually comes in number one to the answer to that question,” Krosnick says.
Moreover, according to Krosnick, most politicians stand to gain a lot more by vowing action on global warming. “The thing that’s odd and unusual and really and unprecedented about global warming. It’s the only issue we’ve seen in 30 years of research on this, where it’s very strongly tipped on one side,” he explains.
Of the voters who say climate is very important to them, 80 percent believe it’s a problem. Krosnick says with most other issues, by taking a side politicians alienate just as many voters as they attract.
Polling indicates most of the state’s major races are tight, and outcomes could hinge less on issues and more on turnout.
Whether or not climate change motivates more voters to turnout remains to be seen.
Right now climate organizers say they’re just happy global warming has become an issue in the Shaheen-Brown race, one of the contests that will help decide the makeup of the senate.
Pete Kavanaugh says climate change has become a “wedge issue” and when pressed on what makes him say that, he replies, “I think just the fact that they’re talking about it.”
Given the $3 million Kavanaugh’s boss Tom Steyer has thrown into this race, that talk hasn’t come cheap.