Climate is a 2020 juggernaut. Democrats should seize the moment.
After a primary debate without a single question on climate, Dems need to make sure voters know where the party stands.
During the 2018 cycle through my work at the Democratic Super PAC American Bridge, I watched a lot of Senate debates. Like, a lot. There were nine states we considered Senate battlegrounds. On average there were two debates per race, 2–3 hours per debate. You do the math.
Over a year later, one thing from those hours of debate has stuck with me. It wasn’t health care, the issue of the cycle. Nor was it the Kavanaugh hearings, which dominated the political media in the last months of the election.
It was that when moderators turned over the questioning to voters, at debates and voter forums from Missouri to Arizona, there was almost always someone who asked about climate.
Their questions spoke to a growing electoral theme: as the issue of climate change increasingly occupies the minds of American voters, it is the Democratic Party’s to lose.
This happened in debate after debate, in states that often trended more red than blue. These questions rarely came from the moderators. Instead, it was almost always a member of the audience asking their Senate candidates what they planned to do to confront the biggest crisis of our lifetimes. In Indiana, moderators said they received more voter questions about climate change than any other issue.
It was a pattern that defied the conventional wisdom that climate change is an issue valued only by elite, coastal, urban voters. It was glaringly, suddenly clear that climate was an issue on the minds of voters across the country — one that was potentially an enormous mobilizing force.
What started as an anecdotal observation has been borne out in polling. According to a 2019 survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, two in three registered voters (66%) are “very” or “somewhat” worried about global warming. That’s up from 56% in 2014.
And the momentum is accelerating. In the 2020 primary contests so far, climate has been front and center. Entrance polls in Iowa and exit polls in New Hampshire showed Democratic voters ranked climate second in issues most important to them, second only to health care. A poll released by the League of Conservation Voters and the Nevada Conservation League showed climate was set to be a major issue in that state’s recent caucuses.
It’s not just Democratic voters preoccupied with the bizarre weather patterns, prolonged floods and droughts, and terrifying wildfires that have become our new normal. Traditional conservative voters — particularly young ones — are ringing the alarm.
The GOP remains laughably weak on this issue, but they are quickly catching on to the fact that outright denial will soon be politically untenable. For now, their proposals are limited to vague support for “innovation,” or the bait and switch of planting a trillion trees. But the fact that they’re giving credence to an issue they dismissed for decades should be a wake up call to Democrats.
In 2018, Democrats ran and won the House on a straightforward message about health care: the GOP wanted to take away health coverage; Democrats did not. In 2020 and beyond, we have the same opportunity to present a binary that works in our favor.
We can show voters that we are the party that takes the climate crisis seriously, that has real, substantive plans to deal with it, and that respects that communities across the country are already suffering from the effects of climate change.
At the same time, we can easily distinguish Democratic candidates running at all levels from Republicans, who are — to a man — inferior on this issue.
The earth is changing in front of our eyes. We have an opportunity to solve this problem. In doing so, we can cement Democrats as the party with the climate solutions desperately sought by the public. We can’t wait for climate questions to come to us. We need to make sure the issue — and our solutions — are in the spotlight through Election Day and beyond.
If Democrats don’t center climate in our political messaging, we risk ceding ground to Republicans. It’s not only a moral imperative, it’s a political one — one that has the power to underscore our party’s commitment to an equitable future, while winning us votes at the ballot box.
Amelia Penniman is a Senior Associate at Bully Pulpit Interactive where she works for philanthropic clients committed to combating climate change. She previously served as the Communications Director for Senate Campaigns at American Bridge 21st Century and as Press Secretary for Sen. Richard Blumenthal.