During a campaign season in which climate change featured most prominently as a laugh line at the Republican National Convention, the low point was when CNN’s Candy Crowley addressed “all you climate people” in her explanation of why climate didn’t come up during the presidential debates. Who knew that human disruption of the global climate had become such a narrow, provincial concern?
But there’s important information in the fact that a senior reporter for a major network could dismiss climate change as essentially a special interest issue. It’s evidence, if more were needed, that “all us climate people” got our butts kicked in the battle for the narrative in the 2012 election.
And like the Republican Party, which is now undergoing the usual soul searching that follows a big electoral defeat, those of us who believe that inaction on climate is the greatest threat facing our civilization (never mind the economy) have some serious soul searching to do about our own defeat, which occurred long before any votes were counted.
Crowley’s explanation was consistent with the conventional wisdom on why the president didn’t make climate an issue. Because it was an “Economy election” and everyone in the DC press must accept that government action on climate change could do serious harm to the economy (because “it’s become part of the culture,” even if it’s not true), any discussion of climate policy by the president would have been off-message and worked against his chances for re-election.
The unconventional wisdom, popular among “climate people,” is that the Obama campaign failed to recognize the high level of popular support for action on climate change and missed a golden opportunity to seize a winning wedge issue when they chose the more politically expedient route of ignoring it.
There’s probably some truth to both of these explanations, but here’s a third one that is particularly useful in the context of a presidential election: the campaigns avoided talking about climate policy because they believed that raising the issue would be harmful in a few swingy areas of key swing states that would likely decide the election.
Look, it’s tempting to point to all the national polls showing popular support for climate policy and say, “climate is a winning campaign issue.” But a political strategist would find nothing useful in those polls because campaigns are not won by appealing to the sentiments of the average American. Similarly, when a presidential candidate is speaking to a national audience, it’s easy to believe they are speaking to us — all of us. But they’re not. By and large, the candidates’ speeches are written to appeal to a handful of undecided voters in a few swing states, with just enough partisan red meat thrown in to motivate the party base to volunteer for the campaign and turn out to vote.
Americans understand that those swingy areas are the “tail that wags the dog” of our national elections but don’t necessarily think about the logical conclusion of that fact; the concerns and attitudes of swing voters in swing states are the “tail that wags the dog” of campaign messages, media coverage, and thus public understanding of what issues are important in the campaign.
The problem is fossil fuel interests have figured out how to wag that dog. They know they can’t win public opinion nationally, but by focusing resources in key areas of swing states such as Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, they can frame the local discussion of climate policy and environmental regulations to their advantage (i.e., as a “Job-killing war on coal“) and essentially neutralize those issues at the national level — at least during the election season.
If the Obama campaign’s pre-election polling looked anything like the maps of election results in coal-mining regions of southwestern Virginia and southern Ohio, it’s easy to imagine strategists telling the president, “Don’t exacerbate this ‘war on coal’ thing or it could hurt us in swing states” (see map):