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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Voters Help Democrats

Air Date: Week of

US Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA) speaks at an August 2022 campaign event. Warnock won reelection this week against Herschel Walker. (Photo: Courtesy of John Ramspott, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Democrats outperformed expectations during the midterm elections that concluded December 5th with Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock’s reelection in a runoff. Nathaniel Stinnett, founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project, joins Host Steve Curwood to take a look at the impact of environmentally focused voters at the ballot box during the midterm election season.


CURWOOD: The re-election of Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock in the Georgia runoff December 5th finished the midterm election season with a solid win that delivered full majority power in the Senate for Democrats, even though Republicans did wrest control of the House from the Dems. Democrats performed better than many had expected and part of their power nationwide is the growing number of voters who list climate and environment as their top priority. For some insights into these green voters and their impact on the midterm elections, I’m joined by Nathaniel Stinnett, founder, and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project. Nathaniel, welcome back to Living on Earth!

STINNETT: Thank you so much. It's so great to be back.

CURWOOD: So for a moment, let's talk about an environmental voter. What are the criteria that determines that title? And what are some of the common demographics for these super environmentalist?

STINNETT: So when we at the Environmental Voter Project are identifying what we call environmental voters, we're trying to isolate people who care so deeply about climate and environmental issues, that it's their number one priority. And those people are disproportionately young. They are disproportionately people of color, especially Asian American and Hispanic. And there are disproportionately people of lower income, people who tend to make less than $50,000 a year.

CURWOOD: Now, when we've spoken in the past, who said one of the characteristics of environmental voters is that they don't vote very often, and so they don't get targeted by people in campaigns. What happened this time? How did the environmental voter turnout compare in this midterm to the 2020 or 2018 elections?

STINNETT: So we don't have a lot of the data from election day yet, because it takes a few months for that data to sort of flush through the voter files. But we do have a very clear picture of what happened during early voting. And in early voting, people who cared deeply about the environment consistently outperformed the overall electorate, by which I mean, if you look at turnout of registered voters, about 33, 34% of registered voters showed up and voted early in most states, whereas environmentalists sometimes were as high as 40, 45, or 50%. Now part of that has to do with just the fact that early voting itself has become partisan, which sounds kind of crazy. But the more progressive you are, the more likely you are to vote early. And so what I would not claim is that we should look at that early voting data and say, “Oh, environmentalists voted more often than the overall electorate.” In fact, I am not comfortable saying that, because we would expect environmentalists to do better in early voting. But whereas we typically see environmentalists vote at lower rates than the overall electorate, they performed so well, during early voting, that I'm thinking when we get all of the data in, it's going to end up being pretty even.

CURWOOD: Interesting. Let's just take a moment to speculate. Nathaniel, what do you think is getting these climate voters to the polls on Election Day?

STINNETT: I guess first just for some baseline data. When we looked at exit polls in the 2020 presidential election, 4% of voters said that climate was their number one priority. Exit polls in the recent midterms, showed that 9% said that climate was their number one priority. Now to be clear, that's an apples and oranges comparison. Presidential voters are different from midterm voters. But clearly there's this growth. But to get to your question, Steve, I think a lot of people would say that climate change and climate politics was more of the zeitgeist around the presidential election than it wasn't this recent midterm. People were talking about the dobs decision for the midterm, and they were talking about inflation, and they were talking about guns and cost of living. They weren't really talking that much about the climate crisis. And so all I can do is speculate here. But what I think was going on, is that the Inflation Reduction Act made a lot of people who cared deeply about climate move from being kind of disappointed in the Biden administration, to having the wind at their backs. No, I'm not going to claim that this was a climate election. It most definitely was not. But something made a whole lot of disappointed and disengaged environmentalists show up. And I got to think that the Inflation Reduction Act had a lot to do with that.

CURWOOD: So where does the environmental voter lie in the coalition that seems to be the basis of the Democrats these days? Not just demographics, but people supporting reproductive rights, LGBTQ, labor.

Around 6,000 super-environmentalists who did not vote in the original 2022 midterm election sent in a ballot for the subsequent Georgia runoffs. (Photo: Karri VanKirk, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

STINNETT: It varies by region. But we see very, very strong correlations between people who care deeply about climate and people who care deeply about other issues that are core to the modern Democratic Party's ideology. So in the northeast, we see very, very strong correlations between climate voters and people who care deeply about a woman's right to choose. In the Mountain West and the Southwest, we see strong correlations between people who care about climate change and people who care about gun control. Now, I think it is likely that you would see a lot of overlap, if you looked at any sort of progressive issue constituency group, but those two particular instances are really, really so prevalent that it pops out at us whenever we look in those two places. And then the final thing I'll say is it is hard to avoid demographics here. As I'm sure is no surprise to you, Steve, people who care deeply about the climate crisis are really, really young, they are disproportionately young. And people who care about those other issues that I just mentioned to you often happen to be very young as well. And so, obviously, it's important to discuss ideology. But as politics becomes increasingly tribal, identity is unavoidable, and who you are often helps define what issues you care most about.

CURWOOD: Nathaniel, let's take a look at Georgia for a moment. What was notable about environment, first voters and this year's midterms and, of course, the runoff itself?

STINNETT: In the midterms, we saw from exit polling data that 6% of voters listed climate as their top priority. Now that was lower than the national average for the midterms; the national average was 9%. But it was still pretty high. Because if we go back to 2020 in Georgia, only 2% of voters listed climate as their top priority. So again, I won't claim that climate voters were the story of the midterms in Georgia. But boy, are they more powerful now than they were two or four years ago. We really saw something extraordinary in the early voting data in the runoff election. So 12% of all early votes that were cast, were cast by climate first voters. When you compare that to the midterm, that was down at 11%. And that 1% is actually a pretty big number when again, you consider the universe of climate voters is not that big in Georgia. So they really, really showed up in pretty significant numbers. And what I think is really important to point out is almost 6,000 of these climate first voters in Georgia who voted in the runoff election, didn't even vote in the midterm. Now, again, is that 6,000 votes a difference maker in an election that were not won by 100,000? No, of course it isn't. But something was going on there. People who care deeply about climate and environmental issues, not only viewed this as an important election, but viewed it as significantly more important than the national midterms that had just happened a few weeks earlier. I think it was important for a few reasons. It's been hard for Kamala Harris to get more than 10 miles away from DC these past few years, because she's had to be the tiebreaker on a lot of important pieces of legislation, including a lot of important pieces of climate legislation. She won't have to do that anymore in a 51 to 49 Senate. Similarly, Democrats will hold a majority on a lot of these Senate Committees. But perhaps most importantly, I don't think we should just view this as the final Senate election of 2022. I think we should also think of it as the first Senate election of 2024. And in 2024, it's a really hard Senate map for Democrats. Democrats will be defending Senate seats in some pretty red states. And to the extent Democrats are going to be the ones proposing federal climate legislation, which they tend to be, I think it's really, really important for them that they're going into that hard 2024 Senate cycle with this extra seat that Raphael Warnock just won. And so this is this is really, really important, not just for this year and next year, but for 2024.

An estimated 850,000 registered voters in Georgia consider climate or the environment to be their top priority when it comes to voting. The Environmental Voter Project focuses on getting out the vote to registered voters who are unlikely to vote in elections. (Photo: Phil Roeder, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Now, let's face it, presidential primaries are now just a little more than a year away in certain places. Where do you see the role of the environmental voter bloc, say, in 2024?

STINNETT: The best way to make a new environmental voter in 2024 is to talk to them in 2023. So first, I would say swing state mayoral elections in places like Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or Jacksonville, Florida, or Tucson, Arizona, are going to be very, very important because those are the elections where brand new environmental voters are going to be born. But when we then move ahead into the primary season and 2024. Well, as you know, Steve, the primary calendar might be mixed up a little bit this time around. Yeah. And particularly in states like Nevada, where, at the Environmental Voter Project, we've identified a huge population of environmental voters, well, they are going to have a disproportionately large amount of sway, not just over the Democratic primary, but also over the Republican primary. I won't claim that there are enormous numbers of climate voters who vote in the Republican primaries, but there aren't enormous numbers of voters period who voted primaries. So even small numbers can actually move things on the margins in the primaries.

CURWOOD: So what advice what cues? Do you suggest that politicians might take moving forward about courting the environmental voters out there?

Nathaniel Stinnett serves as Founder and Executive Director of the Environmental Voter Project. (Photo: Courtesy of the Environmental Voter Project)

STINNETT: First, I would say, you don't need to be scared. What all of our polling shows, and what a whole lot of public polling from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications and Pew Research shows is that there are very few independents and even Republicans who don't want action on climate change. Maybe it's not a high priority for those independents and Republicans, but very, very few of them oppose it. So although I would never claim that climate is the number one most important issue to huge numbers of Americans, that is not the case. In fact, the very point of the Environmental Voter Project is we recognize that we need to make more climate voters. But what I would say to politicians is there's very little downside to leading on climate. What all of the polling shows, public or private, is that there are very, very few climate haters and environment haters out there. And so, I would claim to politicians that this is an easy win for you. You're not going to make many enemies you're not gonna make many people refuse to vote for you by pushing for more clean energy and more jobs in the clean energy sector. That's an easy win.

CURWOOD: Nathaniel Stinnett is the founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project. Nathaniel, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

STINNETT: Thank you for having me, Steve.



Learn more about the Environmental Voter Project


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