It is the start of a New Year, and the long election of 2012 is behind us now, but that doesn’t mean the campaigning is over. A new Congress and a second Obama term present opportunities to advance clean energy and climate action, yet given the persistent gridlock in Washington, it will take a sustained effort to generate the public pressure and bolster the political will to put smart policies in place. The 2012 race offers some lessons about how best to build that momentum.
The 2012 election revealed a good deal about energy politics. Energy received more coverage in campaign ads than any issue except jobs and the economy. Fossil fuel companies spent more than $150 million in ad campaigns by mid-September, and Former Governor Romney echoed the industry’s talking points on the stump, calling for more drilling, more coal-fired power, and skirting the reality of climate change on more than one occasion.
Yet despite the dirty ad blitz and anti-environmental rhetoric, Americans roundly rejected this polluting energy platform. Up and down the ticket, they chose candidates who support clean energy, clean air, and strong public health safeguards.
Now we have to help leaders deliver what voters asked for. How can we keep the momentum going for expanding wind and solar power and reducing toxic smokestack pollution? How can fight back against deep-pocketed polluters? How can we persuade Congress the time has come to confront climate change? The 2012 campaigns provide some answers.
1. Local Success Stories Inspire Support
Everyone is familiar with the old adage: all politics are local. The same is true for the politics of clean energy and climate change. A few years ago, we noticed it was easy to build support for clean energy in California, because the clean energy sector is such a vibrant part of the state’s economy—generating jobs, attracting investment, and enhancing the local tax base. Now that wind farms and fuel efficient automakers and other climate solutions have spread across the country, more and more people are experiencing the benefits of strong environmental policies in their own communities. Yet no matter how broad the clean economy becomes, the lesson remains the same: use local success stories to build support for broader policies.
Smart campaigners heeded this lesson. Candidates shot commercials at a local solar plant or wind farm. And when they spoke about clean energy, they didn’t focus on national policy. They talked about your neighbor, who works at a steel mill making wind turbines. The strategy paid off when voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots for clean energy champions.
As candidates shift from campaigning to governing, they should remember to maintain the local focus. Beltway debates about national energy policy or carbon limits may fall flat back home, but stories about clean energy opportunities in familiar communities will excite voters. Just look at the recent debate over wind energy incentives. Some Republicans called for ending these incentives in the recent budget deal, but the incentives passed with bipartisan support—perhaps because more than 80 percent of installed wind power comes from Republican-majority states.
It’s never been easier to make the connection between clean energy policy and local benefits. The wind industry relies on a domestic supply chain of more than 400 manufacturers in more than 40 states. More than 100,000 Americans work in the solar sector, and more than 150,000 have jobs making cleaner cars in 43 states. Lawmakers should trumpet the numbers from their own districts.
2. The Most Effective Messages May Surprise You
As part of our broader work, the NRDC Action Fund set out to elect environmental champions to office in 2012. We know smart climate policies will make America’s air safer to breathe, spur economic growth, and generate a host of other benefits for our nation. But that doesn’t mean we made climate the focus of the campaigns where we were active. Instead, we let local issues determine our central message and we stuck to it.
Take the Senate race in New Mexico. Former Representative Martin Heinrich has a terrific record of supporting the state’s burgeoning renewable energy sector and talking about New Mexico’s extreme drought and wildfires in terms of climate change. He also stands strong against contaminating the state’s water with a toxic gasoline additive known as MTBE – something his opponent, Heather Wilson wavered on while accepting campaign contributions from its producers. It turns out that while the large majority of voters appreciated Heinrich’s climate positions, they cared most about the drinking water issue. Early on, our environmental coalition decided to trust our research and make safe drinking water the central environmental issue of the race. We stuck to this decision, because our ultimate goal in this race was not to necessarily campaign on climate change but to elect an environmental champion to the Senate. This strategy paid off when Heinrich beat Heather Wilson soundly.
As 113th Congress kicks off, we have to be smarter about building public support. Sometimes the problem of climate change seems so big that people tune out and feeling helpless to make a difference. Building a relationship with people on issues that they already care about (and feel empowered to deal with) is a good way to gain trust and educate the public how their concerns may be tied to climate change.
3. All that Money Made People Panic, but the Deep Pockets Lost Anyway
We knew polluting industries would spend unprecedented amounts of money in 2012, but the stockpiles of cash they amassed still exceeded expectations. Fossil fuel companies and their allies lavished $270 million on ads in the last two months alone. Together with GOP strategist Karl Rove’s groups and oil industry giants David and Charles Koch, outside money invested in dirty energy campaigns totaled at least $1 billion.
This avalanche of money made pro-environmental campaigns nervous. In the past we may have panicked or let the oil companies push us off message. Wherever I went on the campaign trail, people asked the same questions: how are your fundraising numbers? Are you keeping up with the other side? The truth is clean energy and clean air supporters could never match fossil fuel spending. But we didn’t have to because the majority of Americans favor a clean, sustainable future over the polluting past. In most cases, candidates who ran on clean energy triumphed, and those who didn’t failed. One of Karl Rove’s Super PACs spent almost $105 million to support anti-regulatory candidates but was successful in less than 2 percent of its races.
The same pattern played out in numerous senate races. In Ohio, oil, gas, and coal companies and their allies spent $20 million to defeat Senator Sherrod Brown and elect Josh Mandel. Mandel doesn’t believe humans contribute to climate change and opposes government incentives for clean energy. Brown, in contrast, calls for robust climate action and says that smart government measures like new fuel economy standards “can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save consumers money, and address our dependence on foreign oil.” Ohio voters agreed with Brown on this and many other issues, and rejected Mandel and his polluter backers.
4. Not all Polls Serve the Same Purpose
Every campaign pollster faces a choice: do you poll for internal use or to rally the public? The first kind of polling is conducted to test messages and measure public support. It asks the hard questions and yields important truths campaigns must consider as they plan their path to victory. The second kind of polling puts on a “happy face.” It frames questions in ways that make your candidate or issue appear hugely popular, and campaigns love to push share the results with funders or media.
Once in a while, both kinds of polls yield the same numbers—like on a lot of environmental issues—but campaigners need to decide at the outset of a polling project what they want: brutal reality or a great story to tell. If you don’t know the difference, you run the risk of failing to see the truth or make necessary changes. You also have to be aware of whom you are polling and confirm that your demographic model is on track with the voting population.
Romney’s team underestimated the youth vote, and it cost him dearly. I have spoken to members of his campaign who said they were absolutely convinced Romney would win because all their internal poll numbers favored him, but they under polled traditionally progressive voters. They also trusted their own polling even in the face of independent polling that favored Obama. In fact, nearly every single external poll correctly called the election for Obama.
This cycle taught us to poll with intent. You can poll for of facts or for perception. You just have to know the difference and when you get the numbers back – whether it is on a candidate or on a message, trust them unless there is strong evidence to the contrary.
5. There Is Such a Thing as Too Many Campaign Ads
Campaigners want to run as many ads as the budget allows. If someone told me I could buy 10 spots in an hour instead of three, I would have jumped at the chance. But this year’s cycle showed timing is just as important as volume. If you run your commercial when everyone else is running them, it may be drowned out. But if you get out early and ahead of your opponents, you can achieve greater influence and insert your issue in the race.
Many campaigns made big ad buys in September and October, but polling numbers didn’t move much throughout the fall. Campaigns were in search of the seemingly mythical undecided voter but most people had made their decision long before they ever put on their fall jacket. The chance to persuade the largest number of people about any given issue came much earlier on the cycle. In New Mexico, our campaign kicked off in July. When we started, Heinrich was in a statistical dead-heat with Wilson. After a robust environmental community campaign, he pulled ahead and never looked back.
Lawmakers can apply this lesson when they are mobilizing voters on an issue. Instead of waiting until the week before a big energy vote to educate constituents, pave the way months in advance. And don’t overdo the negative. Negative campaign ads have proven to be effective, but I believe campaigns can hit a saturation point. We are still collecting data on this, but many people tuned out after the months long barrage of nasty attacks. It turns out they don’t want to watch a negative commercial nine times during Grey’s Anatomy. It gets annoying and arouses suspicion, and it can even make people root for the underdog. After all, polluting industries blasted the airwaves with one campaign ad after the other in and yet almost all of their candidates lost.
6. Voters Wants Leaders with the Courage of their Convictions
The 2012 cycle took us into unchartered territory. We had a volatile and protracted GOP nomination process. We had enormous, unprecedented and unrestrained amounts of money poured into the campaign process. And we had an economy still struggling to recover from the worst recession in decades. In the midst of all this uncertainty, voters favored candidates who demonstrated integrity and spoke more about problem-solving than dogma.
Take Senator Jon Tester of Montana. Tester had used his first term to carve out moderate, reasoned positions on a variety of issues, including clean energy and climate change. Yet corporate interests rallied around Tester’s opponent Denny Rehberg, and they saturated the airwaves with attack ads that painted Tester as an out-of-touch Washington insider. The race got tight, but Tester never backed down from his record or stopped saying that clean energy and climate action was good for Montana. He also didn’t stop being the rancher they had come to know or the straight-talking elected official who fought for them in the nation’s Capitol. In the end, the red state of Montana went for Romney and reelected Jon Tester. Voters may not agree with every one of Tester’s positions, but they chose to be represented by a man who entered the Senate to solve problems, not to dismantle government.
As we head into the new Congress, lawmakers should remember that most Americans are more interested in pragmatic solutions than ideological battles. And when it comes to economic, health, national security, and environmental challenges, clean energy is one of the most powerful solutions we have.