For months now, Democratic primary voters have told pollsters that climate change is a top-tier issue, tied with health care for importance. Inslee made that idea central to his campaign. He is an accomplished politician who oversees one of the country’s fastest-growing state economies. As governor, he passed a health-care public option, a long-term-care benefit plan, and—after three failed efforts—a statewide climate policy.
Yet for all that effort, he never cracked 1 percent in the polls.
Nate Silver, the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight, tweeted his verdict: “People will try to spin it differently but Inslee’s lackluster performance is an obviously bearish indicator for the prioritization of climate change in Democratic politics.”
Yikes. I think that’s going a little too far, but I agree that Inslee’s lack of success does reveal a political problem for climate advocates. For all the plans, climate change does not seem to function in the Democratic Party the way that, say, abortion does within the Republican Party: There isn’t a well-organized contingent of voters waiting to glom on to a climate champion. There is a large, addressable set of voters who care about climate change—but they mostly seem to be activated Democrats, and as activated Democrats, they care about a wide range of issues, and as such retain a wide range of candidate loyalties. Thanks to years of careful organizing, the banner of climate action can unite the U.S. left’s many constituencies. But they come together as constituencies, and that means that even if they want climate action, it remains only one in a list of demands.
In other words, climate change may occupy a position in the party much like Elizabeth Warren does in the primary: Both are just about every Democrat’s second-best friend.
And therein lies the problem. It suggests that if a Democratic politician fails to act aggressively on climate change in office, then no cohort of voters may exist to “punish” them by abstaining from the next election. And that does augur poorly for the prioritization of climate change.
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Now, I think climate advocates are actually aware of this challenge. Right now, groups such as the Sunrise Movement are trying to overcome it through high-profile organizing and newsworthy protests. And that’s working, somewhat: The Green New Deal is all over the news, primary voters are saying they care about climate change, and—hey—at least nearly every Democrat in the primary has gone out of their way to announce a big, ambitious, full-economy climate plan.
And maybe the political rewards for tackling climate change don’t lie within the Democratic coalition. There are signs that climate change is, for many politically jaded young people, a kind of worldview-shaping, pre-political issue. (Just check out all the climate-themed memes and TikToks.) These people aren’t really Democrats, but they’re also definitely not Republicans, and the only elections they may ever turn out for are presidential races. According to Pew data, about one in seven voters ages 18 to 29 voted third party in 2016, far more than any other age group. And an analysis by a student at the University of Pennsylvania found that youth was “the strongest indicator for ‘switching’ one’s vote away from Clinton” to a third-party candidate. A Democrat who leaned hard into climate in the general election may—emphasis here on may—be able to reach some of those voters and narrow the generational turnout gap.