What Super Tuesday tells us about Biden, Sanders and climate

Source: By Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 5, 2020

Though Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have significantly different climate plans, it seems to have made little difference with Super Tuesday voters, observers said.

Biden swept nine of 14 states and the majority of the 1,357 available delegates. The former vice president won 34% of the voters who said climate change is the most important issue to them, while Sanders, an independent Vermont senator, captured 28% of such voters, according to a Washington Post compilation of exit polls.

Though Sanders overwhelmingly won voters aged 44 and younger, Biden overwhelmingly won those 45 and older — suggesting that both groups are eager for a more aggressive climate policy than in the past.

While other 2020 polls have shown that Democratic primary voters are more motivated than ever by climate change, Tuesday’s results make the case that voters are not picking candidates solely based on their climate plans, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“That the winning candidate seemed to carry voters on this issue in their respective winning states suggests to me that voters aren’t really distinguishing among the candidates on this issue,” he wrote in an emailed response to questions.

Exit polling from individual Super Tuesday states appears to support this theory.

In the states Biden won, he had a greater share of voters who ranked climate change as a top concern than Sanders. And in Colorado, California and Vermont, where Sanders won, he captured the largest share of voters who prioritized climate change as their top issue.

For example, in Virginia — which Biden won — 18% of voters ranked climate change as their top priority, according to The Washington Post data. Of that number, 53% went for Biden and 22% for Sanders. By contrast, in Colorado, a quarter of voters listed climate change as a top priority. Of that number, 28% went for Sanders and 18% went for Biden.

The results show climate is likely not an issue pushing either Sanders or Biden over the top, said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. More likely, it shows that voters are buying into the complete package of policy proposals that each presents — with climate linked to other top issues, he said.

“The Bernie climate perspective is neatly connected to his other perspectives on economic justice, on ‘Medicare for All,’ on free college,” Volpe said.

Sanders’ climate policy calls for a radical reshaping of the economy and an end to fossil fuel production. Biden’s proposal — though aggressive compared with past presidential platforms — is less detailed and less transformative.

Sanders has called for a ban on fracking and fossil fuel exports, which expanded significantly under the Obama and Trump administrations. Sanders wants to declare a national climate emergency, where Biden does not.

Sanders supports an aggressive push to transform the nation’s energy grid to achieve “100 percent energy efficiency and sustainable energy by 2030 at the latest.” Biden wants net-zero emissions and 100% clean energy economy by “no later than 2050.” Sanders wants to end nuclear energy, whereas Biden wants it to be a part of the low-carbon energy mix.

Voters may be weighing in, as well, on the likelihood the climate plans presented to them actually would be implemented, said Joel Benenson, a Democratic pollster who worked on the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns.

Climate voters breaking for Biden likely signals that they think he is better able to accomplish something than Sanders, he said.

Benenson said few voters make their decision based on a single topic, and climate change is an issue that resonates across a wide spectrum of Democratic voters. While polling shows younger voters are more engaged on climate, older voters may be making a climate choice they think is more practical.

“These older voters care about the future of their children and grandchildren, and all Democrats know that we need action and we need a president who can get something done on this issue,” he said. “I would think that a lot of older voters might respect Bernie’s passion, but they don’t see a long record of getting things done on difficult issues.”