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Polls show that historically, many people who place a high value on environmental issues stay away from the voting booth. In the 2014 midterms, more than 15 million environmentalists didn’t show up on Election Day. These were people who were already registered to vote and already committed to environmental issues. So why are they so bad at voting? And will they turn out this time around?

For our podcast, Trump on Earth, we dived into the topic with Nathaniel Stinnett, founder of the non-partisan organization, Environmental Voter Project. The group is focusing on Pennsylvania and five other states to get environmentalists to actually cast their ballots. Here’s a portion of his conversation with Julie Grant.

Julie Grant: Why are there so many self-described environmentalists who don’t vote?

Environmental Voter Project:  The truth is, we don’t know all of the reasons why environmentalists aren’t voting. Whatever stereotypes you might have in mind about who the typical environmentalist is, they probably aren’t true. They are no longer the yuppies who drive a Prius and go hiking on weekends.

By and large, the people who are most likely to care deeply about climate and environmental issues are African-American, Latino, live within five miles of an urban core, and make less than $50,000 a year. I don’t want to make it sound like young people no longer care about environmental issues because that’s not the case. It’s just that the environmental movement has become far more nuanced and complex.

We now have great software that allows us to search voting patterns of every single citizen in the United States. And that’s how we’re able to get this really clear view of what’s going on now.

>>LISTEN to the full episode:

JG:  So do you have any idea how many people were talking about? How many non-voter environmentalists are actually out there.

EVP: Yes, we actually have a very good idea. In the 2014 midterm elections, 15.78 million environmentalists didn’t show up on Election Day. All of these people were already registered to vote. They just didn’t walk out their door on Election Day. And in 2016, for the presidential election, 10.1 million already-registered environmentalists stayed home for an election that was decided by a mere 77,000 votes.

It’s actually an enormous opportunity for the environmental movement because changing someone’s mind about climate change or the environment is extraordinarily hard, but finding people who don’t need to have their minds changed and just getting them out the door on Election Day, it’s a heck of a lot easier.

Changing people’s habits is easier than changing their minds. We live in a weird post-truth world where it’s increasingly hard to change anybody’s mind about anything.

JG: What happens when environmentalists don’t vote?

EVP: There are enormous implications, and the obvious one is it impacts whom we elect. But an even bigger implication is it directly impacts the policy that is made not just on the federal level but on the state and local level.

The reason is so important to understand: Who you vote for is secret, but whether you vote or not is public record. And politicians never ever waste any time talking to people who don’t vote. That might sound cynical, but it shouldn’t surprise us. When environmentalists don’t show up, there is no reason on earth for politicians to prioritize our issues.

JG: So where does the environment rank in terms of issues that voters say they care about?

EVP: It obviously depends on the election you’re talking about but as an example, we did a poll leading into the 2016 presidential election where we only polled people whose public voting histories showed that they were likely to vote in this election. And the environment showed up as the 15th priority out of 19 issues for likely voters.  Only 2% of voters listed climate or the environment as their number one priority and another 2% listed it as their second priority.

That’s very similar to a lot of the polling that we see now among likely voters for the 2018 midterm elections. And for everyone who is frustrated that climate change didn’t come up in the presidential debates, this is why.

It’s impossible to expect politicians to lead on a set of issues that voters don’t prioritize.  And that’s why it’s so important for environmentalists to show up whenever there is an election.

JG: So how do you move the environment higher up on a list of issues that voters say they care about? Is the weather going to take care of that for you?

EVP: Mother Nature has a great ground game. She’s good at getting the vote out. And what we are seeing in Florida and North Carolina and elsewhere is that extreme weather and climate-fueled natural disasters turn environmental issues from being at the bottom of voters priorities to being near the top.

JG: When people are directly affected by the environment, then suddenly it pops up as an issue for them. Is that is that what you’re saying?

EVP: That’s exactly right. So in North Carolina, we’re seeing races where both candidates are now talking about the impact of Hurricane Florence. In Florida, people are not only talking about climate change, but they’re talking about blue-green algae and red tides. In Massachusetts, they’re talking about pipeline explosions and in Minnesota, they’re talking about copper nickel mines near the boundary waters.

So where environmental issues directly impact voters in a really profound way, it starts to become a more important priority. But obviously we in the environmental movement don’t want to just sit on our hands and hope that if enough disasters will strike, the people will start paying attention.

And so that’s why the Environmental Voter Project doesn’t try to change anybody’s mind about anything. We just find people who are already with us and try to tweak their habits.

We turn them into better voters by never ever, ever talking about climate or the environment.

Where Midterm Candidates Stand on Environmental Issues

JG: So how do you do that?

EVP: It will sound very juvenile but it’s informed by some really good sophisticated behavioral science. We say things like, 93% of people on your block turned out to vote. People want to fit into societal norms. So we try to take advantage of that.

Another way that we do that is we will send a canvasser to your door and ask you to sign a promise to vote. We have a little pledge card. And then right before the election, we will remind you that you made a promise. And the reason that’s so powerful is that almost every American, unless you’re a sociopath, wants to be known as honest.

JG: So you’re not going up and down my street — you’re going to a specific house on my street.

EVP: That’s exactly right. We are targeting 2.4 million non-voting and seldom-voting environmentalists across six states: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nevada and Pennsylvania. We know that they are super-environmentalists, by which I mean they care so deeply about these issues that they listed it as either their number one or number two priority, yet they’re not voting.  

And we literally know who these people are by name and street address. This is the same approach that big campaigns are taking. Political campaigns don’t target by demographic group anymore. Gone are the days when campaigns focused on soccer moms or NASCAR dads.

These campaigns have built predictive models and they’ve assigned a score to every single person in the voter file letting them know how likely you are to support a particular candidate or issue.

When we create our lists, we say go to Jane Smith’s house at 127 Main Street because we think that she has a 92.7%  likelihood of listing climate change as her top priority and we know from her public voter files that she’s an awful voter.

JG: Are you getting any sense of early voting numbers that give you any insight of how things are looking for the midterms here? Are environmentalists showing up?

EVP: We’re starting to get some clues. The environmental movement is a very nuanced constituency so it’s dangerous to look at big demographic trends in early voting. However, let’s get a little dangerous and talk about it.

In the 2017 elections, we saw dramatic increases among young voters, Latinos and African-Americans. And these are all people who are overrepresented in the environmental movement. So that was a good sign.

We’re seeing some of that again. We’re seeing higher than expected turnout among African-Americans. And we’re also seeing slightly higher than expected turnout among young voters. However, we are not seeing an increase in turnout among Latinos, at least not yet.

So I think it’s still to be determined whether we will have a dramatically higher turnout among environmentalists than we’ve seen in previous midterm elections. But the early data shows that we might, we might. And that’s good news.


Nathanial Stinnett is the founder of the Environmental Voter Project