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Sparks

To Win a Climate Election, Don’t Say ‘Climate’

“High-paying jobs”? “Good for our economy”? “Powering our future”? Totally cool.

Money above solar panels.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Earlier this month, an odd little ad began appearing on TVs in Michigan. On first watch, it plays like any other political advertisement you’d see on television this time of year. In it, Michigan governor and Biden surrogate Gretchen Whitmer touts the high-paying electric vehicle manufacturing jobs that the Democratic administration has brought to her state. Watch the spot a few times, though, and it soon becomes clear what it’s missing.

Climate change.

The 30-second ad by Evergreen Action, an advocacy group linked to Washington Governor Jay Inslee, promotes “electric cars that power our economy and our future,” “training Michigan workers for high-paying jobs,” and policies that are “good for our economy.” This is all clearly referencing programs in the Inflation Reduction Act, arguably the most significant piece of climate legislation ever enacted in the United States, and yet the spot doesn’t once mention the one big upside all these upsides have in common. According to new polling that Third Way, a center-left think tank, shared exclusively with Heatmap News, that’s a good thing.

“Climate, as a message, is not going to drive turnout,” Emily Becker, the deputy director of communications for Third Way’s Climate and Energy team, told me.

While most Americans believe the planet is warming due to human activity and overwhelmingly want the government to do something about it, “climate change” — at least in those words — is almost never their most important issue. According to prior polling by Third Way and confirmed in issue polls run by firms like Pew, voters who say the economy is their No. 1 priority make up a plurality of the electorate, while “climate-first” voters represent a much smaller (and typically, whiter, older, and wealthier) subsection.

The new poll, conducted in mid-May and released on Monday, was done in partnership with Impact Research, a progressive polling firm that also works directly with Biden. What Third Way wanted was a better understanding of when and where climate becomes a make-or-break issue. The results show that just over half of Americans (54%) would back a candidate who views clean energy as a priority. When presented with the hypothetical of picking between a candidate who wants immediate climate action and one who “feels we must address inflation before combating climate change,” the numbers dip; just 40% of respondents said they’d vote for the former candidate, and 47% picked the inflation-busting latter.

Of course, this is a made-up scenario. For one thing, the clean energy build-out is inflation-busting, and lest we forget, the 2024 election is between a candidate who passed the most substantial climate legislation in U.S. history and one who still claims climate change is a hoax. But inflation is the heavy-weight issue in America right now. “People are going to prioritize anything that impacts them personally,” Anat Shenker-Osorio, a strategic communications consultant and the host of the podcast Words to Win By, told me.

Shenker-Osorio said she interprets the candidate question as a victory for climate advocates. Sure, when forced to make a binary, zero-sum choice between climate and inflation, the respondents to this poll chose the latter — but only by 7 points, and with a margin of error of 3.1. Climate advocates have done an “extraordinary job to bring voters into a place where they’re only 7 points underwater on this make-believe question, where somehow tackling corporate price gouging and raising people’s wages can’t be done if we are also tackling climate change,” Shenker-Osorio told me.

Shenker-Osorio did agree, however, that the word “climate” needs to be used carefully, at risk of confusing or alienating voters. “I’m not arguing that the winner here is to say ‘climate change’ over and over and over again,” she said. “I also don’t use that in my messaging. It’s way too abstract.” Shenker-Osorio pointed to phrases like “damage to our climate” instead, and stressed to me that it is important for Democratic candidates and their surrogates to “present a positive vision, which is: the clean energy future is ours for the taking.”

Becker, of Third Way, acknowledged that the question presented a blatantly artificial scenario, but argued that “using measures that can be imperfect can still be revelatory in terms of how individuals think about this issue.” For example, while emissions reduction is an obvious upside of clean energy — it’s literally emphasized in the name! — the polling confirmed that centering discussions of things like solar power and EVs on the high-paying jobs and cost-saving upsides was more productive than opining about saving the planet.

Finding the right balance might not seem too hard, but when you have a 30-second ad spot running in living rooms across Michigan, every single word needs to be high impact. And manufacturing electric cars because they “power our economy and our future?” That’s an upside everyone can agree on.

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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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