Feb 24, 2020 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

These swing voters don't like Trump’s environmental rollbacks

Illustration of a hand in a suit peeling back a sticker of the earth

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Swing voters in four battleground states decisively oppose President Trump's sweeping rollbacks of environmental regulations — but it's unlikely to sway their votes.

Why it matters: It's voters living in states like these, including Florida and Pennsylvania, who fill pivotal roles electing America's presidents, so we should listen.

  • Their comments suggest these voters have real concerns over the environment and the effects of climate change — but also that they don't like any of the 2020 Democrats enough to abandon Trump.

Details: Focus groups of nearly three dozen swing voters in four different states answered questions on a range of topics. The states were the above two plus Iowa and Michigan. (Check out my colleague Alexi McCammond's broader coverage.)

  • These focus groups, conducted by the nonpartisan research firms Engagious and Focus Pointe Global, are a small handful of voters and don't offer a statistically significant sample like a poll.
  • The responses nonetheless provide a richer snapshot inside the minds of voters in key counties.
  • Most of the voters voted for Barack Obama in 2012, then Donald Trump in 2016.

What they're saying: Kathy, a 62-year-old Floridian, lamented the toxic algae blooms afflicting waterways in the area, including the nearby town of Stuart. Although she didn't blame Trump for that algae, she indicated it made her aware of the importance of environmental protection, which she says Trump isn't prioritizing.

  • "Go out here to Stuart, and drink some of the water out of the canal and see what happens to you," Kathy told me after a recent focus group in Port Saint Lucie, Florida. "Dogs are dying from that water."
  • Scientists say climate change is worsening algae blooms. Although a distinct challenge, global warming is related to and often exacerbates traditional environmental problems, such as polluted water.

The big picture: These positions put Florida's swing voters squarely in line with national polling. A Washington Post-ABC poll from last summer found voters measured Trump most negatively on climate change, while this AP poll from September found two-thirds of voters disapproved of his handling of the problem.

How it works: The focus groups in each of the four states were asked to rate, 0–10, to what degree they support Trump's rollbacks of environmental regulations. This was asked twice: first without showing a list of 17 specific rollbacks, and then after.

  • The groups had an average of 4.5 before seeing the list, and 3.2 after.
  • Put another way, the voters didn't show much support for Trump's actions before seeing the specific list, and their opposition only grew with details.
  • Florida voters had the most extreme drop: from 4.5 to 2.6.
"Before seeing that list of rollbacks, my hand would have been up 100% for Trump. After seeing it, my hand was not up. I’m not 100% sold on him. I would say I'm 80% sold on Trump just because of a lot of the other things he stands for."
— Matthew B., 34-year-old Florida resident

The descriptions of the rollbacks came from a list the New York Times is keeping. Though that fact was not shared with the voters, I looked over the list ahead of time to confirm accuracy and objectivity with the descriptions.

  • Florida voters were also read a quote from Trump explaining why he's rolling back regulations, including creating jobs, but that didn’t change their views.
  • "Some things are worth paying a little bit more money, and our environment is definitely one of them," said 41-year-old Amiee.
  • The rollbacks on the list included withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord and loosening a 1990s rule aimed at limiting toxic emissions from major industrial polluters.
  • Click here to see the list plus the Trump quote that was shared with participants.

The intrigue: The Florida voters readily acknowledged sea level rise and increased flooding in their state, though it wasn’t a topic they brought up unprompted. They don't prioritize this over other worries, despite living where global warming's impact is most explicit.

  • Take Matthew: "To me, gun control is a huge thing," he told me after the focus group. "if I have one person regardless of where they stand on the environment, telling me, 'Listen, I'm going to come and take your guns,' and the other says keep your guns, I'm going to vote for the guy who tells me I'm going to keep my guns way before I take the environment into factor."
  • And Amiee: "I don't support what he's doing, but that's not going to be a deciding factor as to whether I vote for him or the other guy."

The other side: So what about the Democratic candidates? Nearly all say they will reverse Trump’s environmental policies.

  • "I would factor it [climate change] in if the Democrats had a good candidate," Kathy told me. She, and the rest of the voters gathered in Florida last week, don't like nearly all of the current Democratic candidates.

What's next: Matthew says he's not sure who he's going to vote for. Kathy and four of the other Florida voters said they plan to vote for Trump again, despite opposing his environmental record.

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