By John Capece, Campus Climate Corps
We all know that when it comes to winning state and national elections, it’s the economy, stupid. But looking back a month or two ago, what was your guess as to the second most important national issue to Democratic voters in Florida?
It was almost assuredly abortion, right? Surprisingly, some authoritative surveys found that climate change edged out abortion for second place.
Let that fact sink in for just a minute — climate change was more important than or at least as important as abortion to Democrats in Florida.
This was the conclusion of an extensive exit poll conducted by the University of Chicago commissioned by Fox News and the Associated Press. Now there are other surveys, like the CNN exit poll, that showed abortion significantly more important to Democratic voters than climate change, but polls differ in who they ask, the questions they pose, and the response options they offer.
Thus, it is hard to reach definitive conclusions from polls. Nevertheless, this recent finding is surprising and consequential.
In the 2022 midterms, the Florida Democratic Party and its candidates relegated climate to a back seat behind abortion and health care. But the Fox/AP poll showed that climate change was ranked as the most important issue facing our nation by slightly more Democrats than was abortion. Democrats also ranked climate above health care, gun policy, crime, and immigration in Florida. At the national level, the poll shows climate and abortion narrowly swapping second and third place, but still very close.
Even more telling, the percentage of voters who tagged climate change as the top national issue in the 2022 election was double the number in 2020, from 9% to 17% among Democrats and from 4% to 9% overall. Given the rapid ascent of climate as a key Democratic issue and given the complexity of addressing the climate issue without alienating blue economic voters, it is not surprising that the Florida Democratic Party and its candidates de-emphasized climate in favor of abortion and other issues.
While downplaying climate in the 2022 midterms may have seemed logical, it would be unwise for Democrats to repeat this campaign strategy in future elections, particularly if they are banking on younger voters.
The challenge therefore becomes how does the Florida Democratic Party elevate climate change and environmental issues in general to the status they deserve, while retaining and attracting more voters who are concerned about the economy. Accomplishing this is tricky, particularly compared to the relative ease of appealing to voters on issues seen as conflicting less with economic priorities.
There is a way to thread this needle, but it requires work. It requires integrating a forceful climate plan with an economic agenda that benefits all. This tight-rope act could eventually become impossible as the effects of climate change stress an already unstable economic landscape.
Democrats need to weave an aggressive economic policy that integrates climate, education, employment, health care, environmental justice, and community development. Yes, it requires research, deep thinking, and collaboration, all in short supply within political organizations.
However, Democrats are supposed to be the smart ones, so it should be possible.
The U.N. climate conference in Egypt demonstrated that the Biden administration is geared up on this subject and can serve as a resource and springboard for Democratic messaging, assuming that FDP quickly gets on the same wavelength as the administration.
At the end of the day, visionary policy without effective outreach is a formula for electoral defeat. Hence, climate policy must be leveraged to enroll, educate, and energize the volunteers who constitute the blue ground game.
Democrats lost the 2022 midterms in Florida not because of weak policy positions, but due to a lack of organizational depth that comes from a failure to motivate volunteers into the county party committees and candidate campaigns. It also doesn’t help that the Republicans basically own the biggest donors and vice versa.
Given that Democrats lost the election largely due to low turnout, it is essential to know why the candidates failed to bring out blue voters. Was it their selection of candidates, choice of issues, their style of campaigning, the lack of outreach funds, or the Party’s inability to mount an effective ground game?
Where does the climate issue figure into this absence of motivation? Exit polls don’t necessarily provide answers.
The movers and shakers in the Florida Democratic Party need to look at the 2022 midterm numbers and come to their own conclusions regarding how to prepare for the elections of 2024 and beyond. But discounting the growing importance of climate change to blue voters would be a big mistake.
John Capece is director of Campus Climate Corps and Chair of the Glades County Democratic Executive Committee.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.