Climate change and the environment aren't likely to be the dominant factors swaying midterm races across the country next month.
That's according to recent polls gauging voters' priorities when they head to the polls on Election Day. It hasn't stopped some candidates and donors from seizing on the issues with the hope that they could tip the scales in some pivotal races where the environment is a hot-button issue, but at the national level, climate change and environmental issues are taking a back seat to priorities like the economy, immigration and the budget deficit.
"Nationally, we're not seeing environmental issues pop us as one of the top things on voters' minds," said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of The Rothenberg Political Report. "I think environmental issues tend to pop up in a specific race or two but is not a national point of discussion."
A recent Gallup poll showed that 17 percent of registered voters nationwide view climate change as an "extremely important" issue in determining their vote for Congress in the midterm elections; 40 percent said it was either extremely or very important.
And when asked to pick the most important problem facing the country today, 1 percent of those surveyed in another Gallup poll pointed to the environment and pollution. Issues like the economy, unemployment, dissatisfaction with government and immigration all ranked much higher.
Another survey taken in September by the Pew Research Center showed that 54 percent of registered voters considered the environment "very important" for their congressional vote, but it ranked eighth on the list of issues, with more people prioritizing the economy, health care and terrorism.
The environment was "sort of towards the bottom middle of the pack in terms of important issues, and I think that's pretty standard," said Jocelyn Kiley, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center. "The economy is always at or near the top of the list; things like health care and terrorism -- they may trade which one is the most important, but they're all among the top issues."
That's comparable to where the environment has stood in relation to other issues, Kiley added. "Overall, it's about where it has been for the last several elections in terms of the percentage of Americans saying it's very important to their vote for Congress or for the president this year."
Green groups shovel cash into enviro candidates, TV ads
But those national polling numbers haven't deterred environmental groups from plowing cash into races and buying ads across the country to boost green candidates and pummel their foes.
Take billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who's betting big that environmental issues can sway voters in pivotal elections around the country. The Steyer-backed outside spending group NextGen Climate Action has raised about $50 million so far this election cycle, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filing, with $41.6 million of that coming from Steyer himself.
So far this cycle, the group has spent more than $16 million on independent expenditures including robo calls, television ads and mailings aimed at targeting GOP congressional candidates and boosting Democrats, according to numbers compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. NextGen is targeting GOP Senate candidates in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire and gubernatorial contests in Florida, Maine and Pennsylvania.
That's not the only group targeting candidates' environmental records this cycle. The League of Conservation Voters and its affiliated groups have spent more than $12 million to support Democratic candidates for Congress while attacking conservative candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics' data.
Daniel Weiss, LCV's senior vice president for campaigns, said that when it comes to environmental issues, nationwide polling loses its relevance. "There is no national because each race is different," he said.
"In the most competitive races, the ones that we're focused on, where these issues become important are when people learn about the candidates' position on them," Weiss said.
Based on polling data he's seen in the past, Weiss added, "People assume that their candidates or their elected officials support environmental protection because it's a norm. ... So people put that lower on their list because they assume -- falsely, of course -- that candidates are all good on this issue. Who would be against clean air and clean water? But when a spotlight is shined on somebody's record on these issues, then it becomes very important to them."
Weiss pointed to a recent report from the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad buys, showing that environment and energy have been hot topics on the airwaves this campaign season. Energy and environment had been the subject of about 110,000 ad buys as of late September, a number surpassed only by jobs and unemployment ads. Oil was the subject of another 36,000 spots, the study showed.
Those ads could be largely preaching to the choir. The Pew survey in September found that environmental issues were important to 69 percent of Democratic voters, compared to 36 percent of those voting for Republicans.
"If climate change is your issue, you're going to be voting for the Democratic candidate," said Gonzales of The Rothenberg Political Report.
But while he doesn't think climate change will be the deciding factor in a race this cycle, Gonzales added a caveat. "If a race is close, then anything could be the deciding factor. It could be climate change, it could be left-handed men who wear button-up shirts.
"In a close race, you'll have tons of groups trying to take credit for the victory and say that it was their issue that made the difference," he said.
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