Ben: Washington governor Jay Inslee, who based his entire campaign around climate change, announced last night that he was dropping out of the Democratic primary. Inslee never gained much traction in the polls, but he is likable and intelligent, and plenty of people mourned his departure. What does his early exit — he’s only the third candidate to drop from the massive field — say about the salience of climate change among Democratic voters right now?
Eric: I’m not sure that it says all that much. There are many explanations for why a West Coast governor with virtually no name recognition and scant charisma failed to make an impression in a field of 24 candidates besides “Democratic voters don’t see a climate change as a top priority.”
Sarah: Some polling does indicate that Democratic voters — at least in early states — care about climate change. I’m not sure I would attribute his lack of traction to voter apathy, at least not totally. I think that the debate formats may have been a factor; Inslee couldn’t exactly force moderators to ask more questions about climate change, and the debates are so crowded that it’s difficult for any candidate to make a cogent case for the platform. Some blame also lies with the DNC’s obstinate lack of interest in holding any climate-change-specific events.
Ben: I was surprised he didn’t at least wait until CNN’s climate-specific forum next month (which is not sanctioned by the Democratic Party).
Eric: Yeah, that said, there is a decent amount of evidence that climate is not the median Democratic voter’s top priority. In a Voter Study Group analysis released last month, only the most consistently liberal Democrats reliably ranked the environment as a “very important” issue.
Sarah: They obviously care about it; we just can’t say the same of party leadership, at least not consistently.
Eric: I think voters are definitely concerned about climate. But the failure of multiple climate referenda in deep blue Washington does suggest they aren’t as concerned as they should be.
Ben: Clearly it’s on another level of importance than it was even four years ago. Most of the leading candidates have released serious plans to address the climate crisis. But did Inslee get short shrift from voters who may have been turned off by a single-issue candidate (or by the fact that, as Eric mentioned, few people knew who Inslee was before he launched this campaign)?
Sarah: I would guess that it had more to do with the fact that people didn’t really know who he was. And, frankly, the primary is very crowded. I think that makes it much more difficult for a candidate like Inslee to repeat what Bernie Sanders did in 2016 and make a national impact despite losing the primary race.
Eric: Yeah. The pool of Democratic voters who are engaged enough to pay close attention at this point is relatively small. The subset of that pool who aren’t longtime fans of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or Liz Warren is even smaller, and there’s a lot of competition for their loyalties.
Ben: Who do you see as the candidate that’s strongest on this issue now that Inslee’s out? Or are the top contenders pretty much indistinguishable from each other in this regard?
Sarah: Warren and Sanders seem like they’re competing for that title a bit. Warren’s repeatedly addressed climate change in her policy proposals, and Sanders released an exhaustive Green New Deal plan today.
Eric: Yeah. I haven’t actually had a chance to review Bernie’s new proposal today, so feel reluctant to say. But I’m generally impressed with what Warren has put out, and pleasantly surprised by the heft of Biden’s plan. It does seem like whoever the next Democratic president is there’ll be a solid chance of our government finally throwing another bunch of money at the problem — so long as interest rates and inflation remain low.
Ben: You say that like it’s a bad thing.
Eric: A lot of important climate policies (like a carbon tax) are politically dicey. But doling out a couple trillion dollars of green stimulus between everyone’s districts and states seems feasible, and would be a lot better than all the nothing we’re currently doing.
Ben: The climate crisis looms as probably the most important problem facing humankind. How understandable do you find it that voters tend to prioritize their immediate circumstances, like prescription drug costs and job security, over the issue that may end up subsuming everything?
Sarah: Deeply understandable! It’s an enormous thing.
People tend to focus on what’s tangible — they need jobs, they need health care they can afford, they want schools for their kids that aren’t falling apart. And there are relatively obvious solutions to those problems. Climate change feels completely apocalyptic. I mean, I feel this way myself. I look at photos of the Amazon burning and feel totally useless.
Ben: Right, and America is only a small part of any solution to any of this.
Eric: Yeah. It’s also like … things are going to get a lot worse no matter what we do, and there will be no immediate reward for taking action in the present. The passage of comprehensive climate policy will make things much less bad decades from now — which is important, but kinda hard to get people to feel excited and empowered about.
Ben: Won’t someone think of the children?
Ben: Getting back to Inslee: He told our own David Wallace-Wells that he succeeded in raising the profile of climate change as an issue in the campaign. Do you think his campaign served that beneficial purpose?
Sarah: I think it at least pushed his fellow candidates to stake out positions on climate change.
Eric: I think it was one of many factors that inspired the major candidates to release ambitious climate plans. But I think the candidacy’s true legacy/contribution will be the policy documents his own staff generated, and which a future Democratic administration will be able to look to for ideas.