Reading the polls is a perilous business for an enviro in this country, because Americans who talk to pollsters say they rate protecting the environment highly, but frequently fail to back up that concern with their votes. According to a recent CBS/NY Times poll, nearly three-quarters of the country believes in global warming, and respondents told the pollsters that “environmental improvements must be made regardless of cost.” But this year, when it came to voting, voters almost always put the planet at the bottom of their list of priorities. In many polls taken last month, the environment didn’t make the list at all, and topped out at at a mere 2 percent, far below the percentages concerned about the war in Iraq, terrorism, Social Security, or even same-sex marriage.

But when it comes to puzzling out the motivations of the American voter, the polls still offer the best available clues … and some of these clues look promising for enviros this year.

As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in a story Thursday called “Democrats Ride Social, Environmental Issues to Religious Gains,” Republicans lost substantial Catholic and evangelical Protestant votes this November, which the WSJ said could reflect “religious voters’ growing concerns about the environment and social justice as well as traditional family values. If the theory holds, it could fundamentally reform the electoral landscape, particularly at the presidential level, Democrats believe.” Predictably, Republican analysts scoffed, chalking up the losses to “corruption.”

John Judis, in a thoughtful examination of the polls called “Blue’s Clues” for The New Republic, examined the mid-term shift in centrist voters reluctant to vote for either party (some former Reagan Democrats, and some former Perot backers). They went Democratic to express their concerns about the war and the economy, he thinks, and notes that Latino voters, alienated by the anti-immigration Republicans, voted overwhelmingly Democratic this year. He adds this fascinating observation:

One other constituency deserves mention: younger voters. In 2002, voters aged 18 to 29 split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. This year, they backed Democrats by 63 to 33 percent. These voters won’t necessarily provide the numbers to win elections for the Democrats, but they can provide energy to revitalize the party. They write blogs, knock on doors, and encourage candidates, such as Montana’s Jon Tester or Northern California’s Jerry McNerney, neither of whom were initially taken seriously by party officials. They don’t necessarily provide solutions to great policy questions, but they can force attention to problems that require solutions, as they did with the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the Iraq War today. As the unions have lost members and clout, their campaign work has been increasingly supplemented by young recruits from organizations like MoveOn.org.

Last year Andrew Revkin for the The New York Times reported on demonstrations at the December climate talks in Montreal by young people from around the world. He was struck by the contrast between the full-hearted passion of the demonstrators and the acrimonious bickering of the conference attendees. Global climate change will inevitably impact younger people more than older generations. Could the generational gap on this issue be showing up in voting patterns already?

It’s too soon to tell, and the overall numbers point to the war in Iraq that dwarfed all others on voters’ minds.

But Congressional analyst Mort Kondracke in Roll Call goes over the data with a magnifying glass and comes to a surprising conclusion. The famously optimistic American public is not confident about the future:

Possibly the most arresting single statistic in the exit polls was the finding that a plurality of voters — 40 percent — believe that the next generation of Americans will experience a life “worse than today,” while only 30 percent expect it to be better and 28 percent about the same.

This means that voters are discouraged not only about America’s present but also its future. The message of the elections is that the country wants its politicians to stop squabbling for partisan advantage and restore the American dream.

Could concern for the health of the planet reflect part of that discouragement about the future? It’s impossible to know without a lot more polling, but we can say with utter confidence that one Republican who stopped attacking Democrats and worked with them to restore hope for the future — including the future health and vitality of the natural lands of his state — proved hugely popular in California.