Denise Ahern of Corona hasn’t decided yet if she’ll vote in this fall’s midterm election. But if she does, the 64-year-old said one issue will be front of mind for her as she considers candidates: their policies on gun control.
“We need to do something about guns,” Ahern said during a break while shopping at the Galleria at Tyler mall in Riverside.
If a candidate with strong position on gun control also has a plan for tackling climate change, Ahern said, that’s a “bonus” in her book. Though she’s concerned about the environment, climate policies aren’t a deciding factor for her in the ballot box.
“There are other issues that are more relevant to me right now,” she said.
In this way, Ahern is a typical Southern California voter.
Recent surveys of voters in battleground political districts in north Los Angeles County and Orange County show growing, bipartisan concern over problems being caused by climate change, such as megadroughts and catastrophic wildfires. The surveys also show widespread support for solutions aimed at mitigating those impacts, such as increasing use of solar power and electric cars.
Still, even many liberals in these areas say candidate positions on climate change won’t drive their votes Nov. 8. And some experts fear that the disconnect between how people feel and how they vote related to climate has grown in recent months, despite worsening impacts from a warming planet, as Americans face seemingly more immediate concerns such as inflation and loss of reproductive rights.
“Unfortunately, there are many other issues that probably are going to take precedence this year,” said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange who has polled local voters for years.
Others argue that recent events haven’t made voters forget climate concerns.
For Democrats nationwide, a new survey by YouGov shows that climate change remains the fourth most important issue on their minds, behind only health care, civil rights and gun control. For those voters, climate change ranked higher even than jobs and the economy, crime or abortion.
While that same survey shows those priorities are essentially reversed for Republican voters, Matto Mildenberger, a political science professor at UC Santa Barbara who studies the intersection of politics and climate change, said there is solid research to show that candidates with aggressive plans for tackling climate change don’t lose GOP voters in California. And, he added, those candidates do gain support from both Democrats and independents.
“Taking a pro-climate political stance in California seems to be a winning political strategy,” Mildenberger said. “It only boosts the size of your electorate.”
And looking to November, Mary Creasman, head of the California Environmental Voters Education Fund, predicts climate issues will only become more important to voters as wildfire season picks up, gas prices fall and as President Joe Biden discusses federal moves that could put a bigger spotlight on climate change in the weeks to come.
Misleading partisan divide
The benefits of having solid climate plans may ring particularly true for state and local candidates in Southern California this year, where voters might feel they stand a better chance at changing climate policies in the near future, according to Creasman, whose Oakland-based nonprofit commissioned those surveys on political districts in L.A. and Orange counties this spring.
While Biden weighs declaring a national emergency over climate change, some voters seem to be losing faith that the federal government will make major advances on related policies anytime soon, Creasman said. The Supreme Court recently ruled to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate coal-fired power plants, and Democrats and Republicans in Congress recently deadlocked over climate-related funding.
That entrenched partisan divide among politicians, which often doesn’t line up with views of most local voters, is evident when looking at platforms for congressional candidates in Southern California.
While the EnviroVoters Ed Fund survey of the newly drawn 27th House District in Lancaster, Palmdale and Santa Clarita found that 72% of likely voters increasingly feel the impacts of climate change, and believe it’s an issue that needs to be addressed, GOP incumbent Rep. Mike Garcia doesn’t mention the environment, climate change or related topics on his campaign website. Meanwhile, his Democratic challenger, Christy Smith, lists “taking on climate change and fighting for environmental justice” as one of the six key components of her campaign platform.
And in the Inland Empire, GOP Rep. Ken Calvert, running for re-election in a newly drawn and competitive district, also doesn’t mention the environment on his campaign website, while Democratic challenger Will Rollins lists “protecting our planet” as one of his top four priorities.
In Orange County, the EnviroVoters Ed Fund survey found that seven in 10 likely voters agreed that climate change is increasingly impacting them and that something needs to be done to reverse global warming. While Democrats in O.C.’s four competitive House races — incumbents Katie Porter (CA-47) and Mike Levin (CA-49) along with challengers Jay Chen (CA-40) and Asif Mahmood (CA-45) — all said through a Southern California News Group questionnaire that they support “much more aggressive” government policies to address climate change, none of the Republicans in those races — incumbents Young Kim (CA-40) and Michelle Steel (CA-45) or challengers Scott Baugh (CA-47) and Brian Maryott (CA-49) — answered that question.
Until just the past six years or so, support for environmental issues in Southern California was strong and bipartisan. But the partisan divide in Congress on this issue appears to be getting worse. In 2018, both Steel and Kim answered the same question by saying “some additional regulations” were needed to tackle climate change.
Local Republicans running for state office this year aren’t all taking cues from their federal colleagues on this issue, though, and some are actively campaigning on environmental issues.
In the open race for the 38th State Senate District, for example, which straddles southern O.C. and much of coastal San Diego County, Democratic candidate Catherine Blakespear, who’s now mayor of Encinitas, has long been a vocal proponent of efforts to mitigate climate change. But GOP challenger Matt Gunderson also is pitching plans to help California take a “lead on climate change,” including “moving rapidly towards getting 100% of our energy from renewables.”
As activists set their sights on local action amid gridlock in Washington, D.C., Creasman said climate platforms from state and local candidates, where progress feels more achievable, will likely play a bigger role in upcoming elections.
Disconnect between views and votes
If one candidate denies climate change and the other makes it a central position of his or her campaign, it’s easy for voters to see the difference and make the connection at the ballot box. And in that case, Mildenberger said there’s strong evidence that California voters won’t look kindly on the climate change denier.
Take, for example, the 2018 race in coastal Orange County between longtime GOP incumbent Dana Rohrbacher and Democratic challenger Harley Rouda. It’s accepted wisdom that Rohrbacher’s refusal to acknowledge climate change, even as communities in his district were building sea walls to address rising tides, hurt him in the race against Rouda, who made environmental policy a leading part of his platform.
But two years later, with Steel discussing plans to replace eroded beach sand during her campaign, she defeated Rouda. While there were many other factors at work in that race, when both candidates were talking about “clean beaches,” voters have to dig into details of their policy plans to figure out which one is actually proposing ideas that will make a real dent in climate change. That can be a heavy lift for the average voter, particularly in midterm elections when so many other problems are vying for their attention.
Another challenge is the language used to discuss this topic.
When pollsters ask voters about problems and solutions related to climate change without mentioning that term, there is widespread agreement. Roughly eight in 10 voters in north Los Angeles County, for example, support policies to conserve water and strengthen safe drinking laws, and to protect public lands and boost wildfire protections. And at least seven in 10 have favorable views of solar power, wind power and electric vehicles.
But polls that use the term “climate change,” like the recent YouGov survey, find stark divisions between GOP and Democratic voters.
Part of the reason for that divide is that the media and political leaders have not done a good job at making it clear to residents how problems such as catastrophic wildfires can clearly be linked through science to the warming planet, Mildenberger said.
His research shows, for example, that when Democrats in California are directly affected by a wildfire, they are much more likely to support any upcoming ballot measures that deal with climate change issues. But that isn’t true of GOP voters impacted by wildfires because, Mildenberger said, those voters don’t connect fire with climate change.
But with scientists saying major changes are needed by 2030 to avoid hitting climate tipping points, Creasman suggests candidates should just ditch terms like “climate change” and focus instead on discussing specific problems and solutions.
“It’s not as if we don’t have solutions,” Creasman said. “This is not a policy problem, it’s a politics problem.”
Source: Orange County Register