Opinion

Politicians should mind the climate change gap

Over the last decade, two gaps have had a huge impact on American politics, especially here in New York state: the gender gap and the race gap. A third electoral gap is on the cusp of joining them – the climate change gap.

I coined the term “climate change gap” when I found it buried in the 2014 exit polling data, both nationally and here in New York state. According to those exit polls, voters by 57-41 percent nationally believed that global warming was a serious problem. Think of that 16 percent difference as the climate change gap.

In 2014, those who saw global warming as a serious problem supported Democrats for Congress by a 70-29 percent margin. Those voters who did not feel climate change was a serious issue supported Republicans by 84-14 percent. When you did the math, those who dismissed climate change narrowly carried the day nationally 51-46 percent in 2014.

Here in New York State, there was a different political equation at work. Exit polls showed in 2014 that by 68-32 percent New York’s voters believed that climate change was a serious problem producing a 36 percent climate change gap. Those who felt climate change was a serious problem broke for Governor Cuomo over Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino by 73-20 percent. That split sharply benefited Cuomo’s re-election.

The political arithmetic is clear: When the climate change gap measures at least 25 percent and it breaks against those candidates denying the severity of the problem by margins approaching 3-1, climate change becomes a potent wedge issue.

Since 2014, public opinion nationally has been moving against those who deny the severity of climate change, especially among those more likely to vote in a presidential election than an off-year election (e.g., millennials, highly educated professional single women and minority voters). We are seeing this trend among Catholic voters as well (25 percent of the national electorate, but probably closer to 40 percent of swing voters in the key Electoral College States).

Two polls tell the tale of the trend line in public opinion. In 2015, The New York Times, Stanford University and the nonpartisan environmental research group Resources for the Future commissioned a poll that found that not only were two-thirds of Americans more likely to vote for political candidates who campaign in favor of fighting climate change, but that two-thirds said they are also less likely to vote for candidates who questioned or denied the science behind global warming.

Pew Research also issued a poll last year, showing that Catholics were ahead of the curve on those seeing climate change as a significant problem. Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change therefore hit Catholics mid-passage on the road to having their faith inform their support for taking aggressive action to combat climate change.

Consequently, when you update the political arithmetic, this year that 2-1 majority in the Times/Stanford poll - if mobilized - can transform the climate change gap into a wedge issue.

Climate change should not, however, be a partisan issue. In truth, Republican candidates would be making a catastrophic political blunder if they follow the denial approach advocated by Donald Trump. Not only did Trump refer to climate change as a “hoax” in the primaries, but he doubled down on the denial line in his economic address in Detroit on August 8. The Times reports that in that Detroit speech, Trump reiterated that he would both tear up the Paris Climate Agreement and halt payments to United Nations global warming programs.

This year Republican candidates for Congress and the state legislature in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Arizona and Colorado, as well as in New York and California, could see climate change impact their races if the Democrats deploy it as a wedge issue. The question is less would climate change hurt candidates hewing to Trump’s denial line than whether the Democrats are astute enough to take full take advantage of the climate change gap.

Let’s bring it back to the politics of New York: after superstorms Irene and Sandy pounded the shorelines of Long Island, pulverized Battery Park, Breezy Point and the coastlines of Staten Island and Brooklyn (as well as the Hudson and Mohawk river valleys), climate change is not an abstract concept to millions of New York voters.

The environmental stakes have always been defined differently by New York Republicans from governors Theodore Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller to George Pataki. It is long past time for New York’s GOP to reclaim this pro-green plumage by making climate change a bipartisan concern. The formation of a climate change gap with partisan edges favoring the Democrats, alongside the gender and race gaps, could become an unbridgeable gulch for New York Republicans.

 

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.

 

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