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Politics

Are Pollsters Getting Climate Change Wrong?

Why climate might be a more powerful election issue than it seems.

A pollster on an ice floe.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Climate change either is or isn’t the biggest issue of our time. It all depends on who you ask — and, especially, how.

In March, as it has since 1939, Gallup asked Americans what they thought was the most important problem facing the country. Just 2% of respondents said “environment/pollution/climate change” — fewer than those who said “poor leadership” or “unifying the country” (although more than those who said “the media.”) Pew, meanwhile, asked Americans in January what the top priority for the president and Congress ought to be for this year, and “dealing with climate change” ranked third-to-last out of 20 issues — well behind “defending against terrorism,” “reducing availability of illegal drugs,” and “improving the way the political system works.”

The Biden administration seems to be taking the apparent message to heart, softening parts of its climate agenda while Democrats in tight elections run interference with their economy-first constituents. Mention of the Inflation Reduction Act, the president’s landmark climate legislation, still mostly elicits blank stares from Americans, and the administration hasn’t done much to help its case. During his State of the Union address, Biden didn’t refer to the IRA by name even once.

And yet Americans clearly, obviously, patently are worried about the climate. More than half of the respondents to a Yale Program on Climate Change opinion poll last winter said “global warming should be a priority for the next president and Congress.” Around the same time, seven in 10 called climate change a “serious issue” and a third reported being “extremely concerned” about it in Heatmap’s own Climate Poll.

“You could also ask, ‘Is the survival of American democracy a defining issue in this campaign or not?,’ and the polls will sometimes mislead you into thinking it’s way down the list,” former Vice President Al Gore said at a recent leadership conference for his nonprofit Climate Reality Project in New York — and indeed the March Gallup poll from March had “elections/election reform/democracy” as the top issue facing the country for just 3% of people. “But when people get into the voting booth,” Gore continued, “and they think about the fact that democracy is at risk — as we saw in the last bye elections — that actually did matter. And I think climate is the same way.”

Gore wasn’t just relying on his own intuition. A widely circulated New York Times/Siena College poll conducted ahead of the 2022 midterms showed 71% of voters believed democracy was at risk, but only 7% identified it as the most important issue facing the country, leading many to start eulogizing American democracy. And yet candidates from the Democratic Party, which has positioned itself as a bulwark against the erosion of representative government, dominated the most contested elections.

When you start to ask more targeted questions, the research tends to concur. “If you say, ‘Is climate change an important priority?,’ you get about two-thirds of people who agree with that,” Matthew Burgess, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, told me. “If you say, ‘the single most important issue,’ then that’s where it falls off.”

Burgess’s work has examined a particularly odd discrepancy between the limited number of voters who list climate as the most urgent issue facing the country and the fact that climate change, on its own, can seemingly swing elections. In fact, Burgess and his co-authors argued in a paper they published earlier this year that climate voters might have secured Biden's 2020 victory. Using data from the nonpartisan Voter Study Group, Burgess and his co-authors found that “how important voters considered climate change to be as an issue was one of the strongest predictors of whom they voted for in 2020.” How strong a predictor? Strong enough to shift the national popular vote margin by 3% or more toward Biden, they concluded.

But when I asked Burgess what’s missing from a statistic like Gallup’s, which shows few voters prioritizing climate over other concerns, he admitted, “I don’t know.” He has plenty of theories, though. Recent election margins have been so tight that climate change would not actually have to have a significant effect on voting to swing the outcome, he told me. Or perhaps voters are beginning to connect the dots between climate change and issues they more openly profess to care about, such as the economy and national security. When I asked Justin McCarthy, an analyst at Gallup, about Burgess’ findings, he told me that “our question is not meant to measure issues affecting vote choice.”

It takes a lot of faith to buy any of those arguments, and Democrats in tight down-ballot races might not be willing to bet their limited resources on it. But we risk blowing past important context by writing off polling that shows Americans putting the economy over their concern about climate change, according to Emily Becker, the deputy director of communications on the climate and energy team at Third Way, a center-left think tank.

Becker has no problem advising frontline candidates “not to talk about climate and to talk about clean energy instead,” she told me. In her opinion, the two are separate issues — and the popular habit of using them as euphemisms is helping neither voters nor climate-conscious candidates.

“We tend to talk about clean energy as having one core purpose: emissions abatement. Then there are the positive externalities: job creation, clean air and water, money into your community, etc.,” Becker told me. But when it comes to Americans struggling to pay their bills, or who see minimal opportunities for good, well-paying jobs in their communities, “the positive externalities are no longer side effects,” she said. “They’re the main piece.”

By way of example, Becker said, it’s especially telling that investing in clean energy to address climate change appears to be popular in polls, but follow-up questions that ask how voters would feel about that investment if it raises their household costs see a “big drop.” “It’s kind of a luxury issue,” Becker said of climate change-first voting. Third Way’s own research shows that people who self-identify that way tend to be older, white, and more educated.

But young voters — traditionally thought of as the most climate-friendly demographic — are also facing some of the worst economic odds of any living generation. “The idea that you’re going to make decisions at the ballot box based on a faraway problem and not based on the problems right in front of you is a little bit delusional,” Becker told me.

Heather Hargreaves, the deputy executive director of campaigns at Climate Power, a strategic communications group with a robust research and polling operation, had a slightly different takeaway. “I don’t think any elected official who is seeing a national poll where climate change is getting a lower percentage than the economy should be like, ‘Oh, this means I shouldn’t talk about climate change,’” she told me. “That’s misguided.”

Climate Power’s polling has found that “clean energy and climate messaging” moved every demographic toward Biden, particularly — again — young voters, as well as independents, who were key in Burgess’ research. “If you look at the things people care about the most, gas prices and utility costs are always up there,” Hargreaves said. “And these are both related to how we address climate change.”

As even more evidence that climate is a winning message after all, Hargreaves pointed out that Republicans in red districts are “not shying away” from talking about how the IRA has brought money, improvements, and clean-energy investments to their districts. For example, Senator Tom Cotton bragged last summer that “Senator Boozman and I were able to secure the grants” for highway improvement projects funded by the infrastructure law — which the Arkansas pair had voted against. Likewise, Nancy Mace, a congresswoman from South Carolina, hosted a press conference touting a local transit hub with electric buses despite having once called electric mass transit “socialism.”

“They’re now trying to take credit for it — and that’s proof it’s politically a winner,” Hargreaves told me.

As an election-year message, it’s hard to argue that “climate change” — at least phrased as such — actually resonates with the majority of Americans. But “it must be a big tent issue if we’re going to actually solve it,” Burgess, the University of Colorado Boulder professor, told me. And opinions are still being shaped: Gallup has found that victims of extreme weather events are more likely to worry about climate change and view it as a threat. As Hargreaves stressed to me, polling trends tend to be more revealing than any individual battery questions, and they generally show growing levels of urgency.

Becker also offered a word of advice. “Be willing to be told that your issue does not matter as much as you want it to,” she said. “And figure out how you can make your priorities and the priorities of the electorate overlap.”

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Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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