Analysis: Climate voters fueled Biden’s win

Source: By Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 9, 2020

Climate advocates had a banner showing on Election Day, even if they don’t realize it yet.

It’s true that Democrats and environmental groups were denied the resounding defeat of President Trump and his policies that they desired, losing House seats and likely facing at least two more years of a GOP-controlled Senate that has long been hostile to even the most modest climate policy.

But the presidential candidate with the most aggressive climate plan in history, who campaigned on spending $2 trillion to decarbonize the economy, won a record-breaking number of voters in a year with one of the highest voting rates in recent memory.

What’s more, President-elect Joe Biden’s ascent to the White House was not inhibited by the views of his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). She has called for a hydraulic fracturing ban and a prosecution of oil companies that denied climate science.

Their win was powered by a diverse coalition of newly motivated climate voters, including suburban women, Black people, Latinos, labor union members and young people.

“The voters who elected Biden are for climate, they voted for him because of that,” League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski told reporters Thursday. “Young people care deeply about this, that was key to his victory.”

Biden’s decisive margin of victory, which could see him win with more than 300 Electoral College votes, came after he laid out a plan to structure a significant sector of the economy away from fossil fuels and toward renewables in just a few decades.

That was unthinkable not long ago, and now it’s a baseline part of the Democratic platform, observers said. Biden also reframed climate not just as an energy issue, but one inextricably linked to racial and economic justice, which has engaged new voters on the issue. Collectively, that means Trump may be the last president in U.S. history who calls climate change a “hoax” or neglects to have any plan to meaningfully address the issue.

The 2020 election has permanently reset presidential climate platforms for the future, said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power 2020.

Future Democratic candidates will need to come up with a plan that at least equals, or bests, Biden’s plan. And Republicans take on greater political risk by ignoring the issue, she said. Lodes said Biden’s plan lays down a marker for future climate policy battles, and it remained top of mind for millions of voters even as a pandemic raged across the country.

“I fundamentally believe this is the first climate election, as far as climate playing a huge role during the election even with everything else going on,” she said. “There’s not going to be another election in U.S. history, another presidential election, where climate does not play as big or bigger of a role. This is only the beginning.”

Biden’s electoral success comes at the end of a campaign more centered on climate policy than any other in history, Lodes said.

Biden pledged to spend $2 trillion on climate change, to transform the nation’s economy away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable future built by union jobs centered in environmental justice communities. Rather than balk at that figure, tens of millions of Americans chose that option, she said. In addition, Biden brought his message to a host of states where climate policy resonated — including Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin and Michigan. Several of these states helped deliver him the White House.

Early results suggest the outlines of a climate coalition Democrats can tap in the future. Exit polls compiled by The New York Times showed that Biden earned 68% of those who defined climate change as a serious problem.

The voters most likely to be concerned about climate change gave Biden an edge, according to the exit polls. That includes a profound gender divide, with Biden winning 56% of women, 13 points more than the 43% Trump won, exit polls show. Black and Hispanic voters, the two groups that polls showed to be the most concerned about climate change, went for Biden by 87% and 66%, respectively. Biden’s strength with Black voters in Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Detroit was an essential part of his victory.

Young people across party lines are more concerned about climate change than older voters. After the primaries, Biden’s support with young voters hovered around 35%, but he rebounded with young people so significantly that their support helped carry him to victory in several key states. Polls have shown that climate change is a primary issue for young voters, including with Republicans and independents, and that all groups want the government to do more to address the issue.

Early estimates show about 47% to 49% of eligible young people voted in 11 key battleground states, with 61% voting for Biden, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. As vote counts continue to come in, that could rise to 51%-53%, which is a 10-point increase from 2016. In Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia, the youth vote is more than the margin of victory expected for Biden, the Tufts group found.

Labor unions have long criticized Democratic climate plans, saying that they would cost jobs in the fossil fuel industry. But Biden made labor participation a vital part of his plan to create millions of clean energy jobs. On Tuesday, he won 58% of the AFL-CIO vote, the union announced Thursday. That was 4 points better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters. That helped bring home a number of battleground states for Biden, he said.

“Simply put, we got out the vote,” Trumka told reporters Thursday. “In Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Pennsylvania, Joe Biden’s firewall was union made. And the labor movement is expanding the map — look at Arizona, look at Georgia.”

Meanwhile, suburban voters backed Biden 51% to 48%, according to New York Times exit polls. That’s another group that is motivated by climate action, research shows. Preelection polling showed Biden’s path to the presidency ran directly through suburbs that turned away from Trump, a shift largely powered by female voters.

Suburban women with college degrees have been energized in their desire to defeat Trump since he was elected, said Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and author of “American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave.” And while that group of women were motivated by racial injustice and marched in women’s rallies, they have also grown into climate advocacy over the last four years, said Fisher, who has surveyed protest movements throughout the Trump presidency.

At the beginning of Trump’s term, she said, her surveys showed that about a third of the women were motivated in their activism by climate. As of last month, that group has become highly motivated by climate policy and 69% listed it as a primary motivator, she said.

That shows there is now a significant movement of women building out a network of like-minded voters. She said some are part of a new climate constituency and that they see the issue as inextricably linked to racial justice and economic justice, which is how Biden framed the issue.

“I think that what we see is this move toward, not just young people but progressive people of all sorts, just starting to integrate the issue of climate change into their motivations politically,” she said. “The folks who voted for Biden, they really care about climate change, and it’s not just the young people.”

This election saw a record number of people motivated by climate and other environmental causes, said Nathaniel Stinnett, founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project. His group, which is nonpartisan, found that millions of registered voters who prioritize climate and the environment didn’t vote in 2018 but that many were motivated to vote this year. The Environmental Voter Project tracked environmentalists who voted early and found more than 600,000 went to the polls for the first time even before Tuesday.

The voters his group targeted this year included people of color, women, young people and people making less than $50,000 a year, representing a diverse swath of the electorate. That includes hundreds of thousands of environmentalists in key states, such as 56,990 people in Arizona, 202,887 in Florida, 83,748 in North Carolina, 69,332 in Georgia and 54,976 in Pennsylvania.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that climate and environmental voter turnout was through the roof,” Stinnett said. “Not only did the environmental vote turn out in a very big way, but many of them were first-time voters. These were people who were pulled off the sidelines to vote.”