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Not a hoax or an emergency: What swing voters think of climate change

Illustration of a patch of grass on a parched piece of land with a swing above
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Swing voters in three of America’s top battleground states say climate change is a concern, but not an urgent crisis.

The big picture: The results of focus groups in Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin suggest that some of America’s swing voters have views on climate change that are in between Democratic presidential candidates, who think it’s a crisis, and President Trump, who dismisses it altogether.

Why it matters: It’s voters living in states like these who fill pivotal roles electing America’s presidents because of how our electoral system works, so it’s worth listening to them. Groups of between 9 and 11 swing voters in those 3 states answered questions about a range of topics, including climate change. (Check out my colleague Alexi McCammond’s broader coverage.)

  • The participants were a mix of voters who either voted for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 and flipped to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 or voted for Democrat Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.
  • 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.
  • But the responses provide a richer snapshot of how some voters in key counties are thinking about climate change in the 2020 election.

What they’re saying: The participants were asked the following fill-in-the-blank exercise: Climate change is a ____. Of the more than 2 dozen responses, most (14) chose words that somehow described climate change as a problem, with “concern” being the most common word.

  • Just 4 people chose words that made it clear they roundly dismissed climate change as a problem at all (like Trump), with one Obama-Trump voter calling it a joke and another saying it was “scientifically unproven.”
  • Nobody described climate change as an emergency.
  • Other words mentioned: “big issue,” “addressable issue” and “something scary.”

Their stated degree of urgency is a key factor in whether climate change becomes a big enough priority to help determine their vote. Although this topic is getting more attention this election than it has perhaps ever before, these lukewarm reactions suggest it’s still not breaking through.

  • Most of the swing voters in the focus groups didn’t rank it in the top 5 of their priorities.
  • Polling, meanwhile, shows more Americans are worried about climate change and want action on the matter, but nearly all of the increased concern is coming from Democrats.

“There are lots of other issues competing for voters’ attention, so if they perceive it’s not urgent, there’s a tendency to put it on the back burner,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, senior research scientist and director of Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication.

Between the lines: Climate change is unlike any other problem facing the world given its centuries-long time horizon and uneven impact (as I detailed in these two recent columns).

  • Scientists are increasingly sounding the alarm about the mostly negative, and at times catastrophic, impacts that climate change is already having and is likely to have in the decades to come.
  • But to people who are worried about paying big health care bills or losing their jobs in a matter of months due to a slowing economy, any problem playing out over decades will inevitably not rise to the top. Or, if it does make it to the top, it doesn’t stay there long.

Driving the news: In the political arena, the rhetoric is intensifying. Activists and many progressive politicians are increasingly calling climate change an emergency, while most Democrats say it’s a crisis. Certain media outlets are revamping their coverage and, in some cases, changing their style books.

  • Some Republicans, meanwhile, are starting to acknowledge the problem after years of mostly ignoring it. At the same time, Republicans are turned off by the more aggressive language many on the left are using.

What I’m watching: When asked if climate change is an emergency, one of the Obama-Trump voters in Minnesota said her daughter would describe it that way. I'm watching to what degree younger voters — who polling suggests are more worried about climate than older generations — retain that sense of urgency as they get older. This could determine whether climate change will be a more decisive issue in future elections.

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