We live in an era in which the next campaign season is often met with a collective groan and face-palm for many in the American public. However, for environmentally-minded folks, the 2014 midterm may actually be one worth keeping an eye on. While no one is predicting that November 4 will usher in an era of goodwill and cooperation on environmental issues, candidates and campaigns are being challenged on their green credentials in a way we haven’t seen in a while. Two trends within the 2014 midterms are worthy of further attention: 1) The high number of environmental ad spots run and the amount of money spent on environmental campaigning, and 2) The rise of “I’m not a scientist” as the election’s catchphrase.
Green Ads, Green Money
Numerous news outlets have reported that the number of campaign ads featuring energy and the environment are higher than ever. The New York Times notes that an estimated 125,000 environmental spots have been run in this year’s Senate campaigns alone. Bloomberg rightly points out that, taken as a proportion, this isn’t as impressive as it appears at first glance. But there appears to have been a shift in the direction of the climate change “debate.”
The financial investment in the midterm elections by environmental groups has been remarkable. The Washington Post estimates that a record $85 million has been spent by green groups this cycle, much of it targeting vulnerable Republicans. In the heavily contested Florida gubernatorial election, for instance, tech entrepreneur Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Advocacy Committee has spent millions of dollars in an effort to defeat incumbent governor Rick Scott. Steyer’s efforts have made him the largest donor this election cycle.
The jury is still out as to how successful this campaign blitz will be in electing pro-environment candidates. A variety of demographic and economic factors are leading analysts to predict a good year for Republicans, many of whom are on record as opposing new environmental regulations. Indeed, many of these ads are attacking new carbon emission standards proposed by the EPA.
However, scholarship from the field of media studies suggests that environmentalists need not completely despair. The fact that so many ads are talking about the environment, and that political candidates’ responses to environmental questions are getting so much media coverage, are positive developments.
Broadly construed, agenda setting theory is a media framework that suggests that when an issue is covered more by the media – particularly the news media – audiences tend to see that issue as more important. There are a variety of theories and explanations for why this happens, but the take-away is that increased news coverage of environmental and energy issues during the election may lead people to pay more attention to them even after November 4.
As the famous scholar Bernard Cohen said in 1963, “The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.” And right now, at least, it’s telling people to think about the environment.
“I’m Not a Scientist” and Why It Matters
Those paying attention to campaign debates may have noticed a shift in tone when the question of climate change comes up. In past elections, many Republican candidates for office have questioned or outright denied the existence of human-caused climate change. This isn’t that surprising when you consider that only 25 percent of conservative Tea Party voters, a powerful force in the Republican primaries, believe climate change is happening. This year, though, GOP candidates have softened their stance on climate change. Many are now avoiding the question with this fall’s tag line, “I’m not a scientist.”
Climate activists are understandably frustrated that candidates for political office are so unwilling to accept the scientific consensus on climate change. But in terms of public opinion on climate change, this subtle and unsatisfying shift might have bigger ramifications than one might expect. Studies have suggested that the statements made by politicians and party leaders on an issue can have a significant effect on public opinion about that issue. There are a variety of factors that can make this influence stronger or weaker – how much information the electorate has on the issue, whether or not people are talking to their peers about the issue – but the overall implication is that a shift in how party elites talk about something can change how the public thinks about it.
We’d of course rather see both political parties united in accepting climate science and taking strong action to minimize its impacts. But the argument can be made that ambivalence towards the issue is better than outright hostility, particularly when we consider the fact that these more conciliatory views may trickle down into a sector of the public that right now is still in outright denial.
General Electoral Thoughts
Regardless of your political leanings, please get out and vote this week. The League of Women Voters has put together this site, which can give you information about polling places and hours. Each state has different voting hours. Google also has a form that you can use to look up your polling place.
Midterm elections traditionally have low voter turn-out, but many important political decisions will still be made on the 4th, including state governor elections. While it does seem unlikely that we’ll see much movement nationally on the environment from Congress until after the next presidential election in 2016, the midterms do represent our best chance to make the legislature more eco-friendly over the next two years. And with issues like climate change looming ever larger, every moment counts.