Creating Environmental Super Voters for 2020 and Beyond

The Allegheny Front

As Election Day nears, a majority of registered voters in the United States say climate change will be an important issue in making their choice for president. That’s according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted over the summer. It’s a sharp contrast to the 2016 race, when only 2% of likely voters listed climate or the environment as their top priority.

But a surprising number of people who say they care about climate change and the environment don’t actually cast ballots. That’s where the Environmental Voter Project comes in. For the past four years, the nonpartisan organization has been building what they call an army of environmental super voters. Their goal isn’t to get people to care about the environment more or to change minds about climate change — it’s to get already registered environmental voters to vote – in the presidential election, and others. And they do it by precisely targeting these voters.

On this episode, Julie Grant talks with Nathaniel Stinnet, founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project. (She also spoke to him back in 2018 before the midterm elections.)

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Nathaniel Stinnett: If you haven’t been paying attention for the last four years, you still think that climate or the environment is a second or third-tier issue. And actually, it’s right up near the top now.  When you have 12 percent of voters not just caring about an issue, but listing it as their number one priority, that can really have a political and policymaking impact.

Julie Grant: The Pew Research Center, their survey, which was done in late July, early August, found 42 percent of voters saying climate change will be a very important issue in making their decision about who to vote for in the presidential election. And then another 26 percent saying it would be somewhat important. So more than half think climate change is at least somewhat important issue to them. So what does that say to you?

Nathaniel Stinnett: Well, it says two things to me. One, certainly more and more people are listing climate and environmental issues as their top priority. And more and more people are listening it, even if it’s not their top priority, as one of their top priorities. That’s very good news. However, the work that we do with the Environmental Voter Project, we live in a political system where it’s not that important if a lot of Americans care about something. Rather, it’s important if a lot of voters care about something.

I know it sounds cynical, but it’s public record whether you vote or not. For obvious reasons, politicians care about the opinions of voters much more than nonvoters. So what we focus on at the Environmental Voter Project is not trying to persuade people to change their minds and care more about climate or the environment. Instead, we focus solely on changing their behavior. We find people who already care deeply about climate or the environment, and they just aren’t voting. We try to nudge them into becoming better voters because we already know that the number of environmentalists is growing. But what’s ultimately important is to get them to show up on Election Day.

Finding the Non-Voting Environmentalists 

Julie Grant: So how do you go about doing that? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: It’s a three-step process. The first is we use data analytics and predictive modeling. So these huge polls. We’ll poll 10-15,000 people per state. That helps us to not only identify who the environmentalists are, but then use that information and extrapolate out to find other people like them who care deeply about the environment. Then we use public voting records to isolate the ones who aren’t voting. So that’s our first step. Find the non-voting environmentalists.

Then the second step is, once we’ve identified these people, we don’t need to waste any time on the hard, expensive stuff of politics, which is changing minds and changing opinions. We can just go right to leveraging the latest behavioral science to turn them into better voters.

Then the third step is when you’re trying to change someone’s behavior, you can’t just talk to them every two or four years when there’s a big federal election going on. So we go into a state and whenever there’s an election — local, state, federal, primary, general special — we use that as a behavioral intervention opportunity to truly change these people’s voting habits.

Julie Grant: Before the 2018 election, you talked about creating what you called an army of environmental super voters to rival the National Rifle Association. How have you been doing in pursuit of that goal? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: We’ve been doing great. I’m not going to pretend as though all we had to do was snap our fingers and millions of voters appeared out of nowhere. That’s not how you build habits. But what we have found is that, sure enough, this cumulative impact of not just talking to these voters every two years, but talking to them whenever they have an election, is having some pretty significant results.

I’ll give you some examples. We launched in 2017 in six states. We track our success over a bunch of different metrics. Usually they’re election specific. But what we care most about is long-term growth. We track something we call graduates, which is how many of these non-voting environmentalists whom we’re targeting don’t just vote in the big elections, but also vote in state and local elections.

How many of them become essentially super voters? And after our first three years – 2017, 2018, 2019 –  253,000 of the non-voting environmentalists we’ve been targeting had become such consistent voters that they were voting in even these rinky-dink little local elections, including I might add, over 50,000 in the state of Pennsylvania, which was a state that was decided by 44,000 votes in 2016. So turning 50,000 non-voting environmentalists into consistent super voters who even vote in library trustee and dog catcher elections is something we’re pretty darn proud of.

Julie Grant: How are you going about things in this election? You mentioned that you targeted six states in 2018. What’s your tactic this time around? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: In 2020, we’re working in 12 states. I want to be clear, we didn’t pick those 12 states because of the presidential election. A good way to think of the Environmental Voter Project is we’re not an election-winning organization. Rather, we are an electorate-changing organization.

So what we do is we identify states where there are lots of non-voting environmentalists and then we go in there and whenever there is an election, big or small, we use it as a behavioral intervention opportunity to turn them into better voters. That being said, obviously, the presidential election is a pretty good opportunity to turn nonvoters into voters.

We’re currently working in 12 states. One of them remains Pennsylvania, and we are targeting two million already registered to vote people who list climate or the environment as their number one priority. But they have never, ever, ever cast the ballot in their entire lives because by definition if you’re unlikely to vote in a presidential general election, that pretty much means you’ve never voted before. So these are all potential first-time voters that we’re targeting.

Julie Grant: Why don’t we see many environmentalists voting? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: I think a lot of environmentalists, often for good reason, are fairly cynical about politics, and they’re not convinced that their votes matter. They’re not convinced that politicians care about what they care about. I think it’s so extraordinarily important for people who care deeply about environmental issues to understand this one thing, and that is that whether you vote or not is public record. Now, who you vote for a secret, but whether you vote or not is public record. Quite literally, politicians open up their laptops, look at who votes and who doesn’t vote. Believe me, they couldn’t possibly care less about the opinions of nonvoters.

So what I want to suggest to you, even if you’re unhappy with your choices, you have got to vote simply because by being a voter, you become part of that special group, that special public group that drives policymaking. You’ve got to be a voter because those are the only people who policymakers care about. So please, please, please show up on Election Day and don’t view voting as a transaction or a choice between one person or the other. View it as a choice between either having your opinions matter or having them be hidden and invisible.

How to Find the Non-Voting Environmentalist

Julie Grant:  How do you get the information about people who prioritize environment and climate in order to find them? It sounds like you’re cross-referencing that information then with public information voter rolls. But where do you get that first piece? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: It’s a great question. And I want to be clear, what I’m about to describe is also how the Biden and Trump campaigns now target voters and a lot of sophisticated U.S. Senate campaigns. What we all do now is we don’t target people by demographic group. No one actually targets soccer moms or NASCAR dads anymore. They target on an individual basis. This is how campaigns do it. They start by surveying enormous numbers of people, not your typical political poll of 600 or 800 or a thousand people, but instead 15,000 or 20,000 people per state. Then what we do at the Environmental Voter Project is we isolate people who list climate or the environment as their top priority.

Let’s take the state of Pennsylvania as an example. Let’s say we pull 20,000 people in Pennsylvania and 4,000 of them come back and tell us that climate or some environmental issue is their top priority. Well, then it’s the easiest thing in the world to work with data scientists to figure out, OK, what do we know about these 4,000 people who just told us that climate or the environment is their top priority? What data is there on the voter file about them? What census data do we have about them? What publicly available behavioral and consumer data do we have about them?

Now, we only use publicly available data and most organizations do that. There are obviously a few bad actors here and there, but almost everybody only uses publicly available data like magazine subscriptions that get sold and things like that.

What data scientists are then able to do is predict who all the other environmentalists are in Pennsylvania and actually assign them scores on the voter files that end up being frighteningly accurate. And figure out who all the other environmentalists are in the state of Pennsylvania.

It sounds like a very convoluted, complicated process, but a good analogy is actually the life insurance industry. If you’ve ever applied for life insurance. Most people know the first thing you do is you say, “oh, you know, here’s my medical history. Here’s my age. Here’s how much I drank, here’s how much I smoke.” And the insurance company builds an actuarial table that helps them predict how long you’re going to live and what kind of policy they should sell to you.

Well, we’re essentially doing the same thing, but we’re not trying to predict how long everybody in Pennsylvania is going to live. We’re trying to predict how likely each person is to not only care about climate or the environment, but list it as their top priority. These are frighteningly accurate. They’re called predictive models.

Julie Grant: This is how, in part, I imagine my Facebook feed or Instagram feed have ads that are so targeted to my interests. 

Nathaniel Stinnett: That’s exactly right. And what this allows us to do with the Environmental Voter Project is, again, bypass the hardest, most expensive part of politics, which is trying to persuade people to change their minds or educate them on issues. Oh, my gosh it’s hard to turn a climate denier into someone who cares about climate change. We can just isolate the people who are already with us, the people who care so deeply about these issues that if you shake them awake at night, they’re going to scream climate change. They’re just not voting. And that allows us to just deliver the messages — to text them and call them and mail them and send them digital ads based around the messages that will nudge them into becoming better voters.

Julie Grant: Are you finding fewer and fewer of those people this year? Are people who say they care about climate and environment becoming more likely to vote because we have such a polarizing situation where you have one candidate calling climate change a hoax. And on the other hand, you have a candidate who is trying to come up with ways to move a clean energy future forward along with the economy. 

Nathaniel Stinnett: There are certainly more environmentalists who are likely to vote this year than there have ever been before. But there are also more environmentalists that are unlikely to vote than we’ve ever seen before. Both populations are growing simply because there are lots more Americans who care deeply about climate or the environment.

But just to give you some very big approximate numbers: We think, based off of our own polling data and also polling data that we’ve seen elsewhere, NPR/Marist just came out with a great poll three or four weeks ago — we think there are about 30 million registered voters in the United States who care so deeply about climate or the environment that it is their number one priority.

About 18 million of them are likely to vote in this presidential election. So about 60 percent. That means there are 12 million already registered unlikely to vote environmentalists out there. That is an enormous latent pool of political power.  People talk about the power of the NRA. The NRA has five million members, and there are 12 million unlikely to vote already registered environmentalists out there. This a huge, huge opportunity for the climate movement and the environmental movement, not just going into the 2020 presidential election, but going into 2022 and 2024 and municipal elections and county elections. We have such an enormous amount of latent political power that if we can just tap into a little bit of it, we’re gonna be able to change everything.

States with the Most Non-Voting Environmentalists

Julie Grant: You mentioned that the Environmental Voter Project is focused in 12 states, which is significantly higher number than in the 2018 election. You’re obviously growing. Are these swing states or how are you deciding which states to focus on? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: Some of them are swing states, but we didn’t choose them because of that fact. Our 12 states are Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. We choose these states because what each of them have in common is enormous populations of non-voting environmentalists. And that, more than anything, is important to us. We need those big fat denominators. We need big target populations, because if we go into a state, no matter how politically important it is, and there aren’t that many non-voting environmentalists there, well, it doesn’t matter how good we are at turning nonvoters into voters because it’s not going to impact policymaking. So that’s always our first criteria.

Then our second thing that we always bear in mind is we’re not just trying to change federal policymaking. We’re also trying to change state and local policymaking. We’re always using every election as an opportunity to turn these nonvoters into voters because environmental policymaking is important at every level. What each of these 12 states also have in common is an enormous amount of room to grow on local and state environmental policymaking.

Negative Partisanship

Julie Grant:  The trend looks like more and more people are lifting climate and environment as important issues to them. Why do you think that’s happening? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: I think two things are happening. First, for at least a generation, the environmental movement has viewed environmental activism in a largely apolitical way. For decades, if you are an environmentalist, you expressed yourself by changing how you get to work or how you eat or the electricity you consume or recycling, all of which are very impactful. But none of which were political. Whereas if you care about another issue like immigration or public schools or gun rights or reproductive rights, I mean, you view that as inherently political. So there was this disconnect.

I think part of the reason we’re seeing this growth in environmental political activism is because that is starting to change. A lot of that, let’s be totally honest, has to do with Donald Trump. He has politicized, regardless of whether you’re red or blue or conservative or liberal, I think it is objectively true that he has made a lot of environmental issues more political than they were before.

That gets to the second thing that we’re seeing. There is a very real, measurable phenomenon that political scientists measure called negative partisanship, which is if people see something they don’t like in the political sphere, that can motivate them just as much as being excited about something. There’s a lot of negative partisanship right now around every issue, but certainly in the environmental communities. That’s bringing people off the sidelines.

Julie Grant: Meaning they see someone calling, what would seem to be pretty agreed upon science, a hoax, and calling it into question again and again. Is that what you’re talking about when you say that there’s negative partisanship around it? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: It can not just be around issues, although I think that’s certainly one. It can also be around people and candidates. I don’t just mean the president also sort of down-ballot. We often like to say in a very high minded way, people want something to vote for. Many of them do. But a lot of people also vote because they want to vote against something. That’s what political scientists mean about negative partisanship.

There are a lot of people who get riled up because they want to vote against something. When so much changes and when so much policy changes, there are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle who say, ‘I’m not looking at those people. And I there’s nothing I want to vote for, but oh my gosh, that makes me angry and that makes me angry, too. And I want to vote against that.’

So we’re seeing a lot of negative partisanship. That doesn’t mean negative politics. It’s more that there are a lot of people who are not just being motivated to vote for something, but they’re being motivated to vote against something.

Systemic Racism and Environmental Voters

Julie Grant: What I thought you might say when I asked why more people were concerned about climate and the environment was that more people are experiencing the impacts of climate change with wildfires, with sea-level rise, all kinds of storms — all these things that are really starting to affect more people. But sounds like maybe those aren’t the major reasons people are becoming concerned about these issues. 

Nathaniel Stinnett: I think that you’re absolutely right that that is also a major reason. That is not necessarily a reason that nonvoters are turning into voters, but it’s absolutely a reason that we’re seeing people who cared about climate or other environmental issues now view it as a top priority.

There’s a lot of research to back this up. Pew has done research that has shown that people who have either experienced the impacts of the climate crisis or think they are likely to experience the impacts of the climate crisis are more likely to list that as one of their top priorities.

What that also leads to is something that not many people recognize about the face of the modern environmental movement, which is, when we talk about environmentalists, when we talk about people who list climate or the environment as their top priority, it is no longer white suburban yuppies viewing it as a luxury issue, that everything in their life is going so wonderfully that they have the luxury to care about environmental issues.

People thought that that was the case 20 or 30 years ago. I don’t know if that was true. It certainly isn’t the case now. When you look at who these super environmentalists are, they are far more likely to be Black or Latino than white. They are far more likely to make less than $50,000 dollars a year than more. They’re more likely to be young. It’s important to understand that the typical stereotypes of the environmental movement really don’t hold true anymore.

Julie Grant: Do we know why that is? Why people in these groups are more likely to care about environmental issues? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: It’s because systemic racism subsidizes the fossil fuel industry. If you think about any fossil fuel — coal, natural gas, oil — toxic air and toxic water is a necessary byproduct of every part of the chain, right? So if you are extracting it from the ground, it creates toxins. When you transport it, it creates toxins. When you refine it, it creates toxins. When you burn it, it creates toxins.

We as a systemically racist society have decided that’s okay. We can live with all that pollution. We can live with all that toxic air, toxic water. As long as we don’t all need to experience it equally. We can live with it if it is in poor communities and communities of color. That is systemic racism.

Systemic racism absolutely subsidizes the fossil fuel economy. If we put coal-burning power plants in white suburbs, we would’ve shut them down 20 years ago. It’s no surprise to me why poor people and people of color are more likely to care deeply about environmental issues and climate change. They’re the ones who have to deal with the impacts.  I think it’s so important that we understand this. It is no surprise at all why people of color have now come to the vanguard of the environmental movement. We’ve dumped all this pollution on their backs.

It’s More Than Just Climate Change

Julie Grant: We hear the most about climate change as the most important issue. But what are some of the other environmental issues that you see listed as important to people who list environmental issues as important to them? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: Certainly the climate crisis is one of them. The climate crisis also tends to impact poorer people, more than wealthy people, people of color, more than white people. But clean air, clean water [are] two things that are obviously necessary to survive for more than a few minutes on this planet. These are absolutely things that people are listing as top priorities to them.

Again, you know, in communities of color, you see much higher asthma rates. I don’t want to get sort of emotional here, but like anybody who has seen a child suffering an asthma attack, I mean, that’s one of the more frightening things you can imagine. When there is a very clear causal relationship between the coal-fired power plant belching toxins into the air in your community and your kid having these asthma attacks, yeah, you’re darn right you start caring about these issues.

We’re seeing a lot of voters starting to list clean air, clean water, the climate crisis as their top priority, along with other environmental issues, things like land conservation and open space and parks. There’s a whole palette of environmental issues that Americans care deeply about and that different Americans care deeply about all across the ideological spectrum.

Julie Grant: As you’re talking about it,  I can almost hear President Trump’s response and the president in the first presidential debate this year when asked about climate change. And he says, you know, and he has said this on the campaign trail as well. You know, crystal clear air, crystal clear water.  This is a president who is rolled back many environmental regulations, has reduced the size of the national monuments, has done all kinds of things that people would consider to be anti-science. So what’s happening yet? 

Nathaniel Stinnett: What’s happening is he wants to win an election. This is a proof point of our discussion about polling. He was not saying that stuff in 2016, nor might I add, was Hillary Clinton, not because she wasn’t an environmentalist. It’s just that it’s very hard for a politician to spend their time and energy talking about a set of issues that voters don’t care about.

But now, you’re darn right, Donald Trump wants to win the state of Florida. So he got an Air Force One, swooped down there and announced that he was putting a moratorium on his own expansion of offshore drilling in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Because love him or hate him, everybody has to admit that Donald Trump is pretty darn good at reading polls. It’s one of the few things he does with consistency every day of his life. He loves to read polls.

It is very clear that there is a huge, huge population of environmental voters in Florida. Am I claiming that Donald Trump’s going to win a majority of them? No, but it’s very clear that he’s changing his rhetoric because he realizes that this is now such an important issue that he needs to start talking about it. Now, that doesn’t mean that you should think he is believable. But I think it really is a proof point of the growing power of the climate movement and the environmental movement.

And by the way, we can see the same thing from Joe Biden as well. Joe Biden obviously has very, very different stances on climate change and environmental issues. But we missed something really unique happening after the Democratic primary, which was that we saw a nominee tack left — not talk to the center — but tack left on climate. You don’t do that unless you think, this is a great way to get more votes and win an election.

So what we’re seeing here gets down to one of the most basic premises of democratic elections, which is politicians have to go where the votes are. It’s the basic arithmetic of how democracy works. Either you go where the votes are, you don’t get to be a politician anymore. When we’re seeing dramatically larger numbers of environmental voters, yes, surprise, surprise, politicians are going to trip over themselves trying to appeal to them.

Julie Grant:  Sounds like what you’re describing as 2020 is largely a year of the environmental climate change voter. 

Nathaniel Stinnett: It’s certainly getting that way. It’s certainly gotten that way. I mean it as we discussed, there are six times as many registered voters now listing climate or the environment as their top priority than there was just four years ago. And it’s not like that’s because of a blip.

This is a consistent amount of growth. I mean, let’s take Florida, for example. There are 2.5 million registered voters who we think list climate or the environment as their top priority in Florida. Approximately 16 percent of the electorate in Florida. So actually in line with a lot of those national polls that we said to have 12 or 14 percent of Americans listening is a top priority. It’s just a little bit higher in Florida. There isn’t a single statewide election in Florida that is decided by like less than 30,000 votes. There are 2.5 million super environmentalists there. Yeah, 2020 could absolutely be the year of the climate voter.