Nov 9, 2020 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Climate change had mixed showing in 2020 elections

Illustration of the earth as a pie chart

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Climate change got more attention this election cycle than ever, but the (political) science is mixed on whether it helped or hurt candidates who ran on it.

Driving the news: Joe Biden campaigned on the topic more than any other presidential nominee, which climate activists say is a victory. But his wins in battleground states may have come in spite of it, not because of it, political observers say.

What they’re saying: “The more climate change was on the agenda, the more it drove up votes in blue states, but it worked against Democrats in purple states, in battleground states,” said a former Obama administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity given tense intra-party divisions.

  • “The fear that a lot of House members have is that going forward, Republicans will use this issue in trying to take back the House in 2022.”

Where it stands: Biden was officially elected the president-elect on Saturday, and the Senate is probably staying in GOP hands, though Georgia’s two runoff races in January could tip the scales. Democrats kept control of the House but lost seats.

  • “That is not a governing alignment designed to address climate change,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

The big picture: Although the election’s outcome will have a big impact on climate and energy policy, the topic remains a marginal voter priority compared to other worries. Exit polls nationally and in virtually all states show voters were most concerned about the economy and the pandemic.

By the numbers: Environmentalists point to Biden’s triumph over Trump as their biggest victory. The League of Conservation Voters' political affiliates put more than $40 million of its unprecedented $115 million electoral investment toward the White House race.

  • But otherwise, their return on investment is not looking good. Out of 21 races across the Senate and House LCV invested in, it looks likely they will have won six and lost 15 (five races were still not officially called, but clear winners were emerging).
  • “I don’t want to sugarcoat it,” said Gene Karpinski, LCV president, on a call with reporters last week. “We didn’t win every state. We won the most important one.”
  • A LCV spokeswoman said that 55% of their overall investment in federal races ($50 million out of $90 million) went to winning races so far.

How it works: Democratic voters care about climate change far more than Republicans, which skews the accuracy of polls assessing Americans' priorities. Parsing out the climate's role depends a lot on what part of the country you’re talking about.

  • Democratic Sen. Ed Markey's ambitious climate policy helped propel his win in a close primary battle in September in the solidly blue state of Massachusetts (he easily won the general election last week).
  • But voters in Florida, at the frontlines of the impacts of a warming world, voted for Trump even more strongly this year compared to four years ago.
  • This reflects the fact that although climate change is rising as a priority for Americans, “it hasn’t yet become so important — even in places incredibly vulnerable like Miami — to overcome political allegiances, specifically among Republicans,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication.

Other examples abound, both at the presidential level and in down-ballot races that LCV and other environmental groups prioritized.

  • Biden lost badly to Trump in portions of Southwestern Pennsylvania and Southeastern Ohio, at least partly due to his conflicting comments on fracking (and Trump’s attacks on them), according to G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
  • Republicans beat a couple of Democrats in moderate districts who tried to distance themselves from Biden’s agenda, including Democratic Reps. Kendra Horn of Oklahoma and Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico.
  • “It is possible that perceived hostility to oil and gas hurt Biden and Democrats in places,” Kondik said. “It may have contributed to some House Democratic losses, such as Kendra Horn and Xochitl Torres Small.”

The other side: Joe Bonfiglio, who leads the advocacy arm of the Environmental Defense Fund, said higher than expected turnout among Trump supporters is what drove GOP wins in some races — not climate change or anti-fracking sentiment hurting Democrats, as some observers believe.

  • EDF’s advocacy partners, which spent nearly $19 million this year, are likely to have a 55%-60% winning record across its priority races, Bonfiglio says. That’s similar to past years (but lower than 2018).

The bottom line: Biden’s presidential victory was propelled largely by winning the “blue wall” battlegrounds of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. “He did this while holding strong climate positions,” Bonfiglio says. “You gotta think that’s a win.”

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