Earth First?

Could the environment play a major role in this year’s presidential election?

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Kerry aides recently let it be known that they plan to make the environment a big issue in the presidential campaign. It’s hard to imagine that green issues are up there, for most voters, with terrorism, war, and unemployment; and yet, paradoxically, this could be the year when the environment figures large in voters’ calculations. The reason: George W. Bush has been the most anti-environment president in modern memory. Even some Republicans think so.

Barring a big surprise, the 2004 election will be close, turning on the votes of a slim 10 percent of the electorate in key swing states. What this means is that less mainstream issues — like the environment — have the potential to shift the electoral balance. “Anything that can move votes by the hundreds or the low thousands in some states can loom large,” said independent pollster John Zogby, to Yuval Rosenberg of American Demographics, a consumer trends magazine, when asked about the potential influence of the ‘green vote.’

And according to some, environment issues could mobilize voters in key states such as Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin. Amongst these, Oregon in particular is known for being a stronghold of the Green Party, and polls suggest that Floridians are also becoming more environmentally minded. When asked whether environmental regulations were “too strict” or “not too strict,” 77 percent of Florida voters polled said the latter.

“The environment is a big issue for two groups of voters: independent suburban men, who are a big swing vote, and the soccer moms who are the target of compassionate conservatism,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told the magazine American Demographics, “What’s interesting about the environment is that it’s one of the more believable attacks against George Bush because people do believe he’s too tied to the oil industry, that he doesn’t ever care about the environment.”

In general, polls do not show Americans ranking their concern for the environment over other key issues like the economy, terrorism or homeland security; according to nationwide Gallup polls, only 5 percent of Americans list the environment as one of their top two issues. That’s not to say that environmental issues aren’t still important to many Americans, or that they own’t figure somehow in the decisions of a much larger segment of voters.

If the environment does drive votes this year, those votes will most likely drop into the Democratic column. A CNN-USA Today Gallup poll in January favored Democrats over Republicans by 57 percent to 35 percent. A similar poll carried out by NBC News-Wall Street Journal showed that 51% of voters had more confidence in Democrats when it came to protecting the environment. And 35% of all Americans, according to a Gallup poll carried out in March, believed that environmental protection policies had been weakened under the Bush administration.

This is no surprise. The Bush administration has compiled an appalling environmental record. (See Mother Jones’ special package, “The Ungreening of America.“) It blew off the Kyoto global warming treaty, after first denying that global warming was actually happening, attempted to drill for oil in the Alaskan Wildlife refuge and rolled back hundred laws and regulations protecting clean air, water and wilderness. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) environmental “report card” for Bush shows the president’s grade sliding from a “D-“ during his first year, to a rock bottom “F” in 2003. Kerry on the other hand, has on of the best environmental voting records in congress, achieving a 96 percent lifetime voting record and an “A+” from the LDC.

Both parties are taking these numbers seriously. As far back as 2002, Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote a memo warning the White House that, “the environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general – and President Bush in particular – are most vulnerable.” Republican senator Lincoln Chafee agreed, telling the online environmental magazine Grist , “the irony is that while the Bush administration’s environmental policy is designed largely to strengthen their campaign strategy, it could do just the opposite.”

Chafee went on to explain, “Look at a map of all the states Bush won in 2000 — the red states are mining states, they are timber-producing states, they are ranching states, many of which have a very strong opposition to environmental laws. But that doesn’t represent the interests of most of the swing states. And even the mentality in the traditionally Republican states is changing — states like Idaho, where people are beginning to understand that there has to be a balance.”

Martha Marks, president of Republicans for Environmental Protection, told Grist Magazine that the Bush administration has even alienated devout Christian members of her organization, people to whom the president is trying to appeal.

“We have a growing number of extremely religious men and women who are very dedicated to the Republican Party but who believe that government must help protect — not destroy — God’s natural creation. Many of our members feel that the Bush administration’s approach to environmental policy doesn’t just damage the common good, it’s immoral.”

For Democrats, this is all good news. “If we are effective in communicating our message, it [the environment] can make a much bigger difference than it has in the past,” said Aimee Christensen, a former Clinton administration energy official, to Ben Geman is an associate editor of Inside EPA, an environmental policy newsletter based in Arlington, VA.

Christensen now acts as executive director of Environment 2004 a Section 527 group focusing on the environment in order to advance the democratic candidate in the fall. Other members of the group include former EPA chief Carol Browner and former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babitt. Over the coming months, the group hopes to raise $5 million in contributions to target voters in swing states such as Florida, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Oregon. Their spending and targeting efforts are matched by organizations such as the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters and Defenders of Wildlife. The Kerry campaign has launched its own television commercial attacking the Bush’s environmental record and has prepared its own state-by-state assessment of the environment over the past four years.

The Democratic push to capture the ‘green vote’ coincides with an effort to mobilize “Generation Y” voters — those born between 1975 and 1995 — for whom pollsters believe the environment could be a key issue. Polls show that 58 percent of 18 to 30-year-olds rank the environment above encouraging economic growth and two-thirds of those polled considered environmental issues to be a high priority.

Young voters could make a big difference in states like New Hampshire for example where President Bush won in 2000 by less than 9,000 votes. Staff writer Mark Clay of the Christian Science Monitor writes, “If even a third of the 23,000 students at the state’s [New Hampshire’s] three big universities turned out this year, it could make a big difference. In Florida, the margin was even smaller – fewer than 1,000 votes or about the capacity of three big lecture halls.”

Granted, for most Americans the environment is unlikely to take precedent over more immediate concerns, but that doesn’t mean it may not still influence their decision, especially given the abysmal environmental record of the current administration. In the words of Jim Di Peso, policy director of Republicans for the Environment, “If you put that very small straw on a finely balanced camel’s back, it could tip the outcome.”


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