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Climate change opinions swing voting and elections in the U.S.

Recent research reveals the pivotal role of climate change in shaping voting behaviors during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections in the U.S.

The study, spearheaded by CIRES Fellow and C-SEF director Matthew Burgess, along with a team of researchers and graduate students from CU Boulder, Vanderbilt University, and the University of California Santa Barbara, offers new insights into the political implications of public opinion on climate change.

Climate change’s influence on voters

The report presents a comprehensive analysis of data from the nonpartisan Voter Study Group.

By employing logistic regression, machine learning models, and simulations of the Electoral College, the research team has concluded that climate change opinions significantly swayed voter choices.

Particularly in the 2020 election, the team estimates a potential 3-percent swing in the popular vote favoring Republicans, had climate change opinions been more favorable to them.

This swing, the report suggests, could have been decisive for the 2020 presidential election outcome.

Climate change vs. other voter concerns

A striking aspect of the study is the broad concern for climate change across the political spectrum. While a majority of Democrats and independents express worry about climate change, the report also notes a significant fraction of younger and moderate Republicans sharing this concern.

In fact, around one-quarter of Republicans who deemed climate change “very important” voted for President Biden in 2020.

This cross-party concern provides Democrats with a notable 26-point lead over Republicans on this issue, as per recent polls.

Despite its influence on voting patterns, climate change is not the foremost concern among voters, with less than 5 percent ranking it as their top issue.

Strong predictor of voting behavior

If climate change isn’t voters’ top issue, why is it such a strong predictor?

“One reason might be that most people see the evidence for climate change as so strong that, if a candidate were to deny or minimize that issue, they might trust that candidate less on other issues,” said Matthew Burgess.

“Another reason might be that voters are beginning to see a connection between climate change and the kitchen table issues they care about more, like the economy, security, and health. But we can’t say for sure, and this is a key question for future research,” Burgess surmised.

More immediate concerns like the economy, healthcare, and education overshadow it. However, its role as a strong predictor in voting behavior raises questions about its indirect impact on voters’ trust and perceptions of candidates.

Looking ahead: The 2024 election

Matthew Burgess, leading the research, emphasizes the significance of these findings for upcoming elections.

“This is obviously information that politicians and advocates across the political spectrum will want to know, heading into the 2024 election cycle,” said Burgess. “How to reduce political polarization of climate change is one of the questions our research group is most interested in currently, and this provides some insight.”

As the nation gears up for the next presidential election, the influence of climate change on voter decisions remains a critical area of focus.

The CU Boulder study not only highlights the growing importance of environmental issues in American politics but also underscores the need for further research to fully grasp the nuances of this complex relationship.

In summary, the CU Boulder research sheds light on the evolving dynamics of voter behavior in the context of climate change, offering a crucial perspective as the country moves towards the 2024 presidential election.

The full study was published here.


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