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Climate Counts

The Midterms’ Surprising Lesson for 2024: Court the Climate Voter

While crime got a lot of attention during the midterms, just as many voters rated climate change as their top concern. Could this be the next big voting bloc?

This image shows a person’s legs and feet visible beneath the polling booth as they cast their vote.
Erin Clark/The Boston Globe/Getty Images
A voter casts their vote in Massachusetts on Election Day.

In this week’s midterms, the climate may have been an unexpected winner. That’s not just because far-right climate deniers, delayers, and petrosexual culture warriors fared worse than anticipated on Tuesday—after all, while the “red wave” failed to materialize, a Republican-controlled House could still block a lot of climate policy. Rather, several quiet signs from Tuesday’s results and exit polls suggest that climate could be a more winning issue for the Democrats than is conventionally assumed. They point toward one possible path to victory in 2024.

This year, more “climate voters,” people whose top issue is the climate crisis, showed up to cast ballots than in any other election in U.S. history. Exit polls show that, contrary to conventional Democratic consultant-class wisdom, climate was the top issue for 8 percent of voters, a share surpassed only by “inflation/economy,” immigration, and abortion (the latter two are tied at second place). You’d never guess it from media coverage, but climate and crime were tied for third place. The percentage of voters prioritizing climate had jumped by four points from 2020, the first year that voters were even asked at the polls about “climate” as opposed to “environment.” There are probably several factors behind this impressive showing.

The Environmental Voter Project, or EVP, which targets “low propensity” voters (that means, people who don’t vote often) whose top issue is climate change, has been tracking this trend and looking for ways to build on it since 2015. The group, whose work I wrote about for TNR in May, is mobilized around the insight that while the stereotypical climate voter in the Democrats’ imaginations looks a lot like me—a comfortably-off white person who votes in every election—many climate voters aren’t like that. They are disproportionately low-income, people of color, and young, all groups that face more obstacles to voting, including voter suppression. EVP’s volunteers text, call, and canvass these voters to turn them out on Election Day. This year, nearly 880,000 such voters cast ballots before Election Day, according to the EVP. When I spoke to Nathaniel Stinnett, EVP founder and executive director, he emphasized that they didn’t know how much of this was due to EVP’s efforts. “Take this with boulder-sized grain of salt,” he cautioned, “but we’re feeling pretty darn good. I’m certain the Environmental Voter Project is having some impact.”

Two particularly crucial races were in Pennsylvania, for Senate and governor, where both races were considered quite competitive and Democrats prevailed. There, the so-called “low-propensity” voters outperformed regular voters during early voting. “These are people we’re targeting because they suck at voting!” Stinnett said. There isn’t enough data yet to know whether climate voters helped put John Fetterman over the edge, but it’s possible.

It wouldn’t be surprising if EVP’s efforts were making a big difference, said Matthew Burgess, director of the Center for Social and Environmental Futures at the University of Colorado Boulder: “We know GOTV [get-out-the-vote] works!” The rise in salience of the climate issue for voters also makes sense, Burgess added, given that the impact of climate change has become far more obvious to most Americans. The solutions seem easier—“solar is cheap!” he noted—while the costs of doing nothing seem much higher. EVP and groups like it could be getting climate voters to the polls, while reality itself might also be creating more of them.

Whatever the reason, the lesson seems clear: Climate voters exist, and Democrats should stop campaigning—and governing—as if they do not.

Indeed, in New York state, where Democrats lost big, climate voters probably stemmed the blood loss by saving the Democrats a congressional seat. Assembly candidate Sarahana Shrestha, a socialist and climate activist, campaigned on climate change and energy justice, making the case to working-class voters that the environmental crisis and their households’ burdensome electricity bills could be solved by public ownership of energy utilities. Her volunteers knocked on some 45,000 doors and made about 200,000 phone calls, according to her campaign, and she won her seat by a 20 percent margin. On a debriefing call yesterday with campaign organizers, I learned that Shrestha’s campaign helped turn out the voters that allowed Pat Ryan, a Democratic congressional candidate whose district overlaps with hers, to prevail in a much closer race (which he seems to have won by less than one percentage point).

Along with all the partisan good news and lessons for the Democrats, there was also some evidence that climate doesn’t have to be as ideological an issue as it sometimes seems. In New York state, one of the few places where the predicted red bloodbath did come to pass, the environmental bond measure was approved by a wide margin, authorizing $4.2 billion in bonds for projects related to the climate crisis, including flood-risk reduction, water infrastructure, land conservation, and outdoor recreation. That bill outperformed the Democratic incumbent governor, Kathy Hochul, by more than 390,000 votes.

This didn’t surprise Burgess, whose research shows that support for addressing the problem of climate change can cross party lines. “Give Biden some credit,” he said, both for the infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, which framed record-setting climate investments in ways that have appeal beyond a traditional liberal base. Both those bills, Burgess noted, emphasize addressing the climate problem through class justice, incentives, expanding choices, “building things,” making America more competitive. All of these are mainstream themes popular even outside of blue enclaves. In our conversation, neither Burgess nor I could think of an example of a Republican candidate this cycle who successfully ran against the IRA, suggesting that opposing smart climate policy may no longer be a talking point the GOP can depend on to win elections.

Of course, extreme right-wingers like Herschel Walker, who’s headed for a runoff with Senator Raphael Warnock, aren’t going to be part of that sensible public consensus. For now, defeating them is an important part of the climate movement’s work. What’s next? “Georgia, Georgia, Georgia,” said Stinnett. The EVP has identified 140,000 low-propensity climate voters in Georgia, he told me, and will spend a half-million dollars “making sure each of them casts a vote” in the December 6 runoff between Walker and Warnock.

A half-million dollars for a couple weeks of turnout work is a drop in the bucket where top Senate races are concerned. In the 2020 election, candidates and outside groups combined spent an estimated $470 million on the Senate contest between David Perdue and Jon Ossoff, and $363 million on the runoff election between Warnock and Kelly Loeffler. But what all this data suggests is that maybe climate voters deserve attention and investment, not just from small groups like the EVP but from the powerful. Elections are so tight these days, as we’re all reminded constantly this week—who isn’t constantly refreshing the vote count to check on the fate of the Senate?—and the Democrats can’t afford to overlook such a fast-growing and passionate constituency.