Climate concerns are driving small but pivotal shifts in voting choices

DAILY SCIENCE

Climate concerns are driving small but pivotal shifts in voting choices

A new analysis of polling data and an Electoral College simulator show that even though climate change isn’t voters’ top issue, it has amassed enough power to tip elections
January 23, 2024

Voters’ concerns about climate change may have delivered the 2020 U.S. presidential election for Joe Biden, a new analysis suggests.

Climate change is a highly polarized issue in U.S. politics; Democratic candidates and elected officials generally support climate action and Republicans generally oppose it. But climate concern is increasing among voters across the political spectrum. As a result, “climate change gives the Democrats an electoral advantage, all else equal,” says study team member Matthew Burgess, an environmental economist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “We estimated that this advantage was probably large enough to give them the White House in 2020.” 

Burgess and his colleagues first gathered data from a variety of recent polls to gauge the state of U.S. voters’ opinions and concerns about climate change. This effort revealed that a large majority of voters are concerned about climate change; climate-concerned voters outnumber those who don’t see climate change as important by nearly two to one.

A majority of Democrats and independents are worried about climate change, but climate concern is also prominent among younger and moderate Republicans. The proportion of voters who are concerned about climate change has increased in recent years, and voters who are concerned about climate change tend to prefer Democratic candidates.

“In 2020, Joe Biden had a 75-point advantage among all voters rating climate change as ‘very important’ and a 72-point advantage among independents with this climate opinion,” Burgess and his collaborators write in a report released January 17. One-quarter of Republicans who see climate change as “very important” pulled the lever for Biden.

 

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To assess the effect of these trends on election outcomes, the researchers analyzed polling data collected by the nonpartisan Voter Study Group based on a nationally representative sample of 7,607 voters in 2016 and 4,513 voters in 2020.

Both of the team’s analyses—a statistical method called logistic regression and a machine-learning approach called a probability forest—suggest that climate concern was one of the most important predictors of voting behavior both years, and stronger in 2020 than in 2016. The effect is particularly strong among independents, who are much more likely than party loyalists to shift their votes from one party to the other and thus drive the outcomes of close elections.

The two analyses also suggest that without the effect of climate change opinion, or if climate concern had remained at 2016 levels in 2020, the national popular vote would have shifted towards Republicans by 3 percentage points or more.

Finally, the researchers used a computer model to simulate the U.S. Electoral College, revealing that this 3% shift in the national popular vote would likely have resulted in a win for Republican candidate Donald Trump. This suggests that climate opinion cost the Republicans the 2020 election, or, to put it another way, climate concern delivered the White House to the Democrats.

“Honestly, the finding that the advantage was large enough to tip the 2020 election surprised me at first,” Burgess says. The results seemed especially surprising because less than 5% of U.S. adults say that climate change is their most important voting issue.

But, Burgess notes, “in close elections, the effect doesn’t need to be that big to be pivotal. A 3% swing isn’t that big. It’s just 1.5% moving from one party to the other.”

Burgess and his collaborators suspect that even if voters don’t see climate change as the most important voting issue, they may not want to vote for a climate-denier candidate because they don’t trust the candidate’s overall judgement. Or, some voters may connect climate change to other issues that they do consider more important, such as the economy, housing, health, and national security.

“But the data we’ve analyzed so far can’t directly speak to this, so this is an important area for future research,” says Burgess.

The findings might also indirectly suggest how to reduce political polarization around climate change in the United States. Based on other past work, Burgess and his team think that there’s broad support for climate action if it has immediate economic benefits and is “framed optimistically and patriotically,” he says. Both the doomist, anti-American rhetoric sometimes seen on the left and the climate denial and delay often seen on the right are unpopular. “This study provides the strongest evidence we’ve found yet for this latter hypothesis about the right,” he says.

Source: Burgess M.G. et al. “Climate change opinion and recent presidential elections.” Available from Zenodo.org, 2024.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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