Our reporters peek behind the curtain at the national political conventions
Fresh back from Philadelphia and the Democratic National Convention, Grist reporters Ben Adler and Rebecca Leber chat about what climate hawks drink when you’re not watching, why young people are dissatisfied with both major party candidates, and the best place to sneak chips when you’re starving after a hard day of listening to floor speeches and carbon tax debates. The following transcript has been lightly edited.
Scott Dodd (executive editor): Let’s start with something you reported over the weekend, Rebecca, that has been blowing some people’s minds on Twitter: NextGen Climate has a new poll out showing that about 40 percent of young voters in battleground states see no difference between Trump and Clinton on climate change. You’re both millennials. Can you explain to a Gen X dinosaur like me how that could be?
Ben Adler (correspondent): Well, let’s just start with the fact that most American voters are very ignorant.
Scott: Do we really want to start with that? We’re publishing this, you know.
Ben: Ha! Well, I’m just saying that public opinion polling has shown remarkably high percentages of voters are ill-informed on the parties’ or candidates’ respective positions for as long as I’ve covered politics. In 2000, for instance, a third of voters were unaware that Al Gore was more supportive of abortion rights than George W. Bush. [Ed’s note: Ben Adler has not been covering politics since 2000, but he’s clearly informed by prehistory.]
This has got to be more true of younger voters because they tend to have more fun things to do than follow politics. I also just think that the younger you are, the harder it is to see nuance and be patient.
Rebecca Leber (news editor): I don’t think it’s just ignorance, though, and when I asked some NextGen folks about it at their poll briefing, they admitted that primary politics and Bernie Sanders’ attacks probably skewed how millennials think of Clinton. The poll doesn’t get much deeper into issues like fracking, but I wondered how much her past non-answers play into these views.
The counterpoint, if you believe [NextGen founder] Tom Steyer’s initiative focusing on college campuses, is that he thinks there’s wiggle room among millennials to both educate them and turn them out on the basis of their belief in climate change alone. He thinks they don’t have to love Clinton while voting.
Scott: That NextGen polling was done before the conventions. Do you think anything that happened in the past couple of weeks has changed the game for climate hawks?
Rebecca: Short answer: No. Or I guess the answer would be that the conventions were disappointing to climate hawks. They’ve lost most of their leverage to get Clinton to do anything more on climate change.
Scott: On that point, the Democratic platform adopted in Philadelphia is being hailed as the most progressive ever on climate and energy issues, due to the influence of the Sanders contingent. But how much will Clinton the candidate or, if she wins, Clinton the president reflect that platform?
Rebecca: I’d just point out that Clinton’s speech at the DNC didn’t hit on any of the climate wins in the platform. There’s no promise that she will stick to that platform, which called for a price on carbon (i.e., a carbon tax), but she has promised to push for more restrictions on fracking. And just this weekend she was campaigning in Pittsburgh and was talking about transitioning from coal to clean energy. But then she gave a shout-out to “clean coal,” which is controversial on the left.
Ben: I would agree with Rebecca that the DNC platform fight was not a game-changer for climate, but it was another major step in the steady progress of mainstream Dems moving to embrace stronger, more urgent climate solutions along the lines of “keep it in the ground.” And that has only happened, and will only continue, due to constant pressure from activists.
Scott: Let’s talk about that front-page story in the New York Times this morning saying that climate change is now at the forefront of the presidential campaign in a way that it’s never been before. Half my Twitter feed is ecstatic and the other half is calling bullshit. Who’s right?
Ben: I’m gonna call it bullshit.
Scott: OK, it’s BS, then. Why?
Rebecca: I think if you look at this campaign compared to the 2012 cycle, it’s true this is completely front and center. But that’s not the right starting point. Obama barely addressed climate change in 2012. But if you look at it side-by-side with all the other themes Democrats are pushing this cycle, and where climate change policy needs to be, it’s clear it’s still considered a second-tier issue.
Ben: I know “the plural of anecdote is not data,” but how many times have you been hanging out with friends or family this cycle and had them start chatting about politics by saying something like: “Did you hear what Trump or Clinton said about fossil fuel extraction on public lands?” It just gets so much less attention than campaign ephemera like Melania Trump’s plagiarism. The speeches at the DNC really didn’t emphasize climate mostly, and the GOP just ignored it completely.
Let me put it this way: The issues that really dominate a campaign tend to be those where the parties are actively competing to show they are the better one to handle it, e.g. national security and the economy. Republicans don’t share the premise that climate change is real and must be addressed. So it’s only really a powerful issue insofar as Dems rally their base with it and use it to persuade moderate swing voters that Republicans are backward. They’re trying to do those things, but Trump is so divisive in terms of race, gender, religion, etc., that they are putting way more emphasis on his intolerance as the way to unite their base and appeal to swing voters.
Rebecca: It’s a little off topic, but I think another problem for climate in an election year is that it’s just a tough issue to convey. All the Dem speakers kept discussing climate change as a “future problem,” which it is, but it’s also a right-now problem. You’re not making anyone believe that it’s immediate enough if you keep reminding them it’s about future generations.
Ben: One other thing I would add: Trump and the GOP’s flamboyant climate science denial lets Dems like Clinton soft-peddle climate, because all they have to say is “I believe in science” to get applause for drawing a sharp contrast. This millennial poll, on the other hand, suggests that maybe they need to go much harder and further on the specific solutions to actually prove that difference to their base. But inside the Clinton campaign office, that must be hard to imagine.
Scott: We’ve been talking so far mostly about what was on display in prime time. But you two were both on the ground at the DNC. (The RNC didn’t want us, apparently, since they denied Grist credentials.) What was most interesting to you behind the scenes, in terms of party organizing or how climate and energy issues are likely to play out in this election, at the national, state, and local level?
Rebecca: Ben did a great story on the informal climate caucus organized at the DNC. That was an example of where you saw more agreement between the Sanders/Clinton coalition than the national coverage would imply.
But I feel like what you’re really asking for here is for us to describe the scene at this climate hawks party we went to one night.
Scott: Yes! Now we’re talking. What’s on the buffet at a climate hawks shindig?
Ben: Lol. First of all, it was in a dive bar.
Scott: What was everyone drinking? Dark and stormies for the hard-core Bernie backers, I’d imagine.
Rebecca: Actually there was a lot that was going on outside the formal DNC events that were pretty interesting. There were rallies on Sunday where it seemed to be all Sanders supporters. That climate hawks party was similar. I kept running into the same people at each of these.
Ben: One thing I would say is that the climate hawk movement is super young. It skews male and white, but it is by no means exclusively either of those things. Everyone at all these things is pretty young, much more so than convention delegates or liberal interest group activists in general. There were a lot of craft microbrews being thrown back at the climate hawks party.
Rebecca: You saw a much better reflection of the changing American electorate at the climate events than at the American Petroleum Institute–sponsored energy panels. Inviting a bunch of serious policy wonks seems to mean that you almost exclusively invite white men to the discussion.
Scott: There was some consternation at both conventions about the role of big oil and gas lobbyists and their coziness with party officials and news organizations. How much of that did you see in Philly? I hope neither of you got bought while you were there. If you start pitching stories on the greatness of offshore drilling and why we need to start fracking national parks, I’ll be suspicious.
Rebecca: Oh, I should disclose that I did eat some chips at the Politico event, which was sponsored by API. Sorry!
Ben: Yeah, I had chips, too, and coffee.
Scott: You’re both fired.
Ben: Hahaha. Yeah, we were asking for it.
Rebecca: We had long days!
Scott: OK, you can stay. What’s weird, though, is that those were media-run events, which you’d think would be neutral. But that doesn’t sound like it was the case.
Ben: Well, API pays them to do this. It’s like sponsored content.
Scott: Ewww. Wait, I mean: The future of media!
Ben: Yeah, sigh.
Scott: It’s nice to be nonprofit.
Rebecca: What seemed the most egregious to me was who was on these panels and the pamphlets they handed out. Presumably the media outlets gave API no say in who was on the panel, but some seemed particularly representative of the pro-fracking coalition of Dems, which definitely exists but isn’t the whole party. The other interesting tidbit was that they handed out all this API material.
Ben: They skewed pro–fossil fuel extraction for sure.
Scott: We’ve talked mainly about climate and energy, since those are the environmental issues that are getting the most attention nationally. But there are plenty of other things that matter to voters: clean air and water, livable cities, food policy, environmental justice. We outlined agendas for all of those things in our election guide. Were they on anyone’s radar at the conventions, and will they be issues in the elections ahead, at any level?
Ben: I was disappointed by the lack of attention to urban issues generally. Environmental justice and clean water got some attention at the DNC, typically citing the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Rebecca: It helps that Clinton has actually released an enviro justice plan too, so her campaign is primed to talk about it.
Ben: Infrastructure investment, like clean energy investment, got talked about as job creation, or “building a 21st-century economy.”
Scott: Those seemed like very cursory mentions, though, at least from afar.
Ben: Yeah, cursory is exactly right. And there was virtually nothing on transportation equity or housing policy.
Rebecca: It seemed to be the thing to frame clean energy as a job creator, which is what I remember as the main takeaway from how Obama discussed climate in 2012. Circling back to this morning’s New York Times story, that’s why I have a problem with it. None of these discussions felt exactly fresh. More like they were returning to the same old applause lines.
Scott: I guess it’s less important what the candidates talk about on the campaign trail than how they govern. But it seems strange that those kinds of issues that really matter to people and communities are just glossed over or left out.
Ben: Yep, again, there was nothing on how we’re going to solve the crisis created by the fact that people in huge swaths of urban American, and even inner-ring suburban America, are poor and isolated from jobs out in office parks. Will we build them transit? Build affordable housing in more affluent suburbs? There was just nothing on this stuff that really matters to our cities and the people who live in them. The national Democratic Party has not produced a program for racial and economic integration and justice within metro areas. And this is their constituency.
Scott: OK, last question: Did you see anyone wearing Grist’s #MakeAmericaGreenAgain hat? No, actually, I mean: What do you think readers should be looking for in the campaigns to come, especially at the state and local levels? What issues will matter most moving forward?
Ben: That’s a good question because you hit on something we haven’t addressed yet, which is the regionalization of the environment and climate. That is, the issue matters less nationally, and the Democratic Party is trying to strike a careful balance nationally because of states with gas or coal, like Pennsylvania. But in specific state and local races, it can matter a lot more.
Rebecca: Yes, look at what Republicans are doing in the more moderate states and districts. Even the ones who don’t have tough reelection campaigns have to carefully walk around climate change issues. These are the places where you’re starting to see an interesting debate really break through. For example, New Hampshire’s [Republican senator] Kelly Ayotte has broken from her party on Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Fracking is a factor in the Pennsylvania Senate race. Marco Rubio has suddenly been emphasizing toxic algae blooms in Florida, even if he isn’t talking about how climate change makes the problem worse. And so on.
Scott: So you’re telling me there’s a chance?
Rebecca: A chance for what?
Scott: Sorry, Dumb and Dumber reference.
Ben: Haha, I get it.
Scott: Gen X out.
See our 2016 Election Guide for Ben and Rebecca’s convention coverage and more political news.