The GOP’s Political Gamble on the Environment

Stuart Rothenberg June 4, 2017 · 8:00 AM EDT

While activists on both sides of the aisle and both ends of the ideological spectrum argue about whether President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord is a good idea, the political risks of that decision are undeniable.

The president’s announcement is likely to elevate the salience of “the environment” as an electoral issue both next year and in 2020, and that could affect how swing voters view the Republican Party. Neither development would be helpful for the GOP, though it is not yet clear how serious any electoral fallout might be.

Of course, other factors will also motivate voters, and developments over the next few months could well overshadow the administration’s climate decision.

Democrats have long had a strong advantage as the party better able to deal with the environment. It’s still true. An April 5-11, 2017 Pew Research Center poll found Democrats holding a 31-point advantage over Republicans: 59 percent to 28 percent.

But that advantage has not proven to be decisive for Democrats, since relatively few voters use the environment as a vote cue when making their electoral choices.

While a large majority of Americans told a March 17-27, 2016 Pew survey that “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” the political reality is much different. 

In the June 15-26, 2016 Pew Research Center survey, “the environment” ranked 12th (out of 14 issues) as a “very important” factor in people’s votes. Only 52 percent said it was “very important,” compared to 84 percent who said the economy, 80 percent who said terrorism and 74 percent who said health care were “very important.”  

Of course, that shouldn’t be surprising.

Barack Obama was an unapologetic environmentalist, so voters had little reason to worry about his environmental policies, which were aimed at slowing global climate change. Instead, they identified other issues as of more immediate concern, including jobs and terrorism.

The economy is almost always the public’s top concern (especially in difficult economic times), and slow economic growth for years heightened Americans’ focus on jobs and wages. Well-publicized terrorist attacks and warnings have made that a top issue for years, as well.

Trump’s decision on the Paris agreement could elevate the environment in the minds of some voters, particularly upscale suburban women, who historically have tended to place a higher emphasis on quality of life issues.

And since the country is narrowly divided over politics in general and Donald Trump in particular, the movement of a relative few voters in a handful of states – including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida – could dramatically change the arithmetic in 2018 and beyond.

Republicans will, of course, dismiss the view that voter behavior will change over the issue, arguing that the economy and terrorism will continue to be much more salient issues. And, in some ways, their skepticism is quite reasonable. 

After all, the U.S. exit from the Paris agreement isn’t likely to create a large number of new environmental single-issue voters, and populist and conservative supporters of the president would have been very disappointed had he not pulled the country out of the agreement. Alienating his base would likely create serious problems for Trump, especially next year, when Republican enthusiasm and turnout are particularly important during the midterms.

But controversial decisions have a way of adding up. Obama’s $787 billion stimulus, cap-and-trade and Obamacare all combined to define the president in a way that energized his critics.

The more voters see Trump taking steps they disagree with, the more likely that they will see him as an opponent rather than an ally. And the more uncomfortable they become with his agenda and his performance, especially on issues that are increasingly salient, the more vulnerable they become to Democratic campaign messaging, especially about the need to “check” Trump by electing a Democratic House.

Of course, when the midterm elections roll around next year, President Trump may have far greater problems than his exit from the Paris agreement. But at the least, his announcement pulling out of the accord is likely to elevate an issue that strongly favors Democrats and gives his opponents another weapon to use against him and his party.