Research Spotlight: The Hidden Electoral Incentive: How Voters Reward Candidates’ Climate Change Positions

Environmental problems in and of themselves are apolitical—a Democrat in New York City requires clean air and water and a stable climate just as a Republican in Mississippi does. In fact, much of the groundbreaking environmental legislation passed in the United States was signed into law by Republican presidents and featured strong bipartisan support. Even on the issue of climate change, Republican leaders from George H.W. Bush to Sarah Palin have, at times, expressed a concern about anthropogenic climate change. Yet, most of the time Republicans and conservative media choose to stay quiet, obfuscate, or worse yet, deny issues regarding climate change. But is this a wise strategy, at least from an electoral standpoint? In other words, are Republicans gaining more voters by not supporting climate action, or are they missing out on a hidden electoral incentive available by supporting it?

One argument is that climate change, or at least the environment in general, is an issue area that Republicans must engage in. This argument was advanced in 2002 by Frank Luntz, a former Republican pollster and wordsmith best known for helping frame Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America as well as the use of “death tax” in debates over the inheritance tax. Luntz decided to analyze Republican vulnerability on issues related to the environment, and in that work he argued “the environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general…are most vulnerable.” 

Yet, on the whole, there exists a belief among many political pundits and candidates that Republicans cannot win elections by being green on climate change. A belief many of you may have echoed in the question at the start of this essay. Baked into this assumption is that (1) Republican candidates will be electorally punished in primaries if they support climate action and/or that (2) in general elections, the average American voter does not care enough about climate change relative to other issues to meaningfully impact their vote choice. 

In my dissertation, I challenge these beliefs and argue that voters in the United States care enough about climate change that they are willing to vote for a candidate they otherwise wouldn’t because that candidate supports action on climate change. I also challenge the assumption that Republican primary candidates cannot stake out positions in support of climate action otherwise risk losing votes from fellow Republicans. In order to empirically test these claims, I designed a candidate-choice survey experiment that was implemented shortly after the 2020 election (n=1,000; the study had a thousand respondents in it). 

The design of this experiment is rather simple (see Figure 1 for an example). Respondents are presented with two candidate profiles with positions on salient issues in American politics (healthcare, gun rights, and abortion) and asked to choose which candidate they preferred. The experimental component is included by randomly assigning a position on whether the EPA should regulate CO2 as a pollutant. 

Figure 1: Example Profile Pair for a General Election

Candidate A Candidate B 
PositionsEnact a Medicare for All program.Restore the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate.

Ban all assault rifles. Keep the gun laws the way they are.

Always allow a woman to obtain an abortion as a matter of choice. Permit abortions only under certain conditions.

Give the Environmental Protection Agency the power to regulate Carbon Dioxide emissions.Block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating Carbon Dioxide emissions.

Tentative results suggest my arguments hold up. Relative to when a Democrat and Republican both support climate action, I find evidence that when the Republican does not they see a significant reduction in the proportion of respondents who support them. Further analysis on who these movers are suggest it is Democratic identifiers who switched their vote choice to the hypothetical Republican candidate. This finding is surprising given the levels of partisanship in contemporary American. In analyzing the mock primary election, I find that on the whole, the position of a Republican candidate on climate action does not significantly influence their electoral support. Although these findings are interesting, it should be noted that these analyses are preliminary and have not undergone peer-review. In addition, due to concerns about sample size in some of these tests, I intend to replicate these findings with further experimentation in the near future.   

Yet, this does permit the reconsideration of that initial question. Perhaps Republican candidates have a hidden electoral incentive to actively discuss and propose solutions to climate change. I find this an important finding, if it holds up through peer-review, because action on climate change in the United States is not likely to come with the support of only one party. Although institutional changes, such as like the elimination of the filibuster advanced by many progressives today, might move the needle some, the size and complexity of the climate emergency demands the best of democracy—a healthy, robust debate over pressing problems facing this country. And even beyond policy, a substantial literature in Political Science finds that elite messaging matters in shaping public opinion, especially on climate change (see my other dissertation chapter). So by both parties actively participating in the debate over climate change solutions and not over whether it is a problem, research suggests this may help shift public attitudes more in line with the scientific understanding of the problem. Which may then help elect more climate-friendly representatives, further propagating the chance for meaningful debate and action.  

Kenneth Mackie is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Florida State University. His research interests include public policy, state politics, and climate change. You can learn more about Kenneth here.

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