Midwestern GOP: We voted for Trump, but we're not out to wreck the environment

Midwestern GOP: We voted for Trump, but we're not out to wreck the environment
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Pulsating floods and the steady beat of warnings from respected in-state university scientists are making a difference in how swingable Midwestern Republican suburban-exurban voters assess climate change, especially when their beloved Great Lakes and safe clean water are seen as at risk.

That’s what we’re learning from focus groups and environmental conversations in the Midwest, a region where congressional seats shifted parties in 2018 and the presidential election may be decided in 2020. 

This spring, the Environmental Law & Policy Center commissioned Des Moines, Iowa-based researcher J. Ann Selzer to conduct 12 focus groups of moderate Republican voters in exurban-suburban districts in Iowa, Michigan and Illinois to better understand their thinking on environmental issues. These participants voted for President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump reversed course on flavored e-cigarette ban over fear of job losses: report Trump to award National Medal of Arts to actor Jon Voight Sondland notified Trump officials of investigation push ahead of Ukraine call: report MORE in 2016 but say that they’re not committed to him for 2020. They have moderate views on the environment — in the four-to-eight range on a 10-point scale of believing climate change is a real, serious problem.

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Here’s what we learned: They were looking for change and don’t regret their 2016 vote for Trump but strongly dislike his tweeting, finding it rude and unprofessional. While environmental issues aren’t top of mind for them, there is an opening as discussions emerge about flooding and weather, clean energy, safe drinking water, and climate change solutions. As one participant put it, “Just because we voted for Trump, we’re not out to wreck the environment.”

For presidential hopefuls and congressional members on both sides of the aisle, there’s an opportunity to engage these voters and advance climate change solutions when framed well by trusted messengers. Here are four major takeaways from this research.

Clean water and the Great Lakes matter to everyone — a lot. We all need safe water to drink and healthy air to breathe. By the end of the session, in a list of issues to be ranked by importance, strong majorities of the participants said clean water and environmental issues were the single most important or very important issues to consider in choosing candidates — more than said the same for job creation.

Across almost every group, participants cared about protecting the Great Lakes and local rivers — places where we live, work and play and essential sources of drinking water. Folks know our food depends on good soil health. Even if they like smaller government in general, they recognize government’s environmental role. There’s value in protecting safe clean water and healthier clean air, holding polluters accountable, and having the right people in regulatory positions. People get it: “There are more ex-lobbyists” at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and “that’s not draining the swamp.”

Weather is really changing, more flooding is taking its toll, and that has something to do with climate change. When it comes to climate change, these folks are aware that something’s not right. They are skeptical of news media making long-term predictions, and they are wary of costs, but extreme weather is already the stuff of everyday conversations. They are seeing more flooding across the Midwest and in their own communities, and they’re concerned about the climate change impacts even if there’s disagreement about the cause and terminology. That’s a shift from our past focus group research, and it parallels nationwide surveys that indicate many Americans are increasingly concerned about climate change.

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Participants commented on local places and things they can see and feel. They are concerned about threats to local agricultural production and to Great Lakes drinking water sources. They are worried about pests plaguing Michigan trees through warmer seasons, recent flooding in Illinois and Iowa, and rising insurance rates due to climate change impacts. That resonates.

Inaction is costly. The best-tested message: “Taking action now is a win regardless. Even if climate change isn’t as bad as we expect, building a green energy economy will only make us more resilient and independent as well as improve our air and water quality.” Participants seem to appreciate that doing nothing doesn’t cost nothing and that taking action now can help reduce environmental and public health costs down the road.

Debate over the causes of climate change is somewhat sidelined when there are solutions such as solar energy development that create good jobs and cleaner air. Those benefits are well worth gaining even if the participants are “iffy” on climate change problems and causes. That’s a popular win-win action message — and much better than risky inaction.

People want to know about solutions, not just problems. Many of the participants are cynical and tired of hearing about problems, but they’re interested in learning more about solar energy development solutions in their home states. Local renewable energy is mostly a point of pride, which connects well and spurs interest. There is a sense of pent-up goodwill. The focus group participants want to be good neighbors, good citizens and good stewards. They were excited to hear about the many Midwestern cities going green right now even without federal leadership. Candidates might celebrate the green energy accomplishments of their constituents and help foster growth in these new industries.

When presented with the Trump administration’s harsh proposed budget cuts for the EPA, the reactions were negative. Participants felt it was wrong-headed to give money to fossil fuels while making cuts to renewable energy. Most did not view nuclear power plants with radioactive materials as being “clean energy.”

By the end of most sessions, participants were more hopeful about the future and looked to see their leaders engage more on environmental issues. This global challenge has real local effects, as we learned in the recent state-of-the-science report by 18 scientists from Midwest and Canadian research institutions. But our accompanying policy solutions report explains actions that can make a difference.

Let’s listen and learn from people about advancing solutions in their communities. Let’s identify local success stories that can be recognized and replicated. Let’s drive innovation here in the Midwest and nationally. The time to act is now. 

Howard A. Learner is the Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, the Midwest’s leading public interest environmental legal advocacy and eco-business innovation organization. Follow him on Twitter at @HowardELPC. Read the full focus group report here.