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Presidential Candidate Environmental Platforms: Is the Median Voter Dead?

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 16 October 2015

Every year I teach a class in public lands management and environmental policy, where we discuss the roles of major political institutions like Congress, President, courts, and bureaucracy.  For a fun participatory exercise, I always peruse the environmental platforms of the most current presidential candidates to see where they stand on public lands issues. I then extract various statements, and ask the students to vote on whether the Democratic or Republican candidate made the statement.  The exercise encourages student participation and helps them understand where the candidates and parties are different or in some cases less distinguishable.   This year I paid most attention to the policy platforms of Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump the “outsider”, and Jeb Bush the “insider” although a brief glance at the other candidates is consistent with the following thoughts.

I noticed three new things about the candidate statements this year, all of which I think are troubling for democratic elections that in principle rely on voters making informed decisions on the basis of candidate policy positions.  Obviously there is a mountain of political science research that suggests most voters do not live up to the normative standard, but in my opinion it is still a standard worth pursuing.  I make these observations with the appropriate humility given that I am not a deep expert in public opinion or voting behavior, so I hope some of my political science colleagues will hone these ideas.  For lack of better terms, I will label the three observations:  narrow issue focus, lack of integration, and ideological extremes.

All of the environmental platforms have a very narrow issue focus on climate change and energy.  These are clearly the two highest issues on the political agenda, and there are good reasons for them to receive priority.  Hilary espouses the current Democratic view on this, calling for increased attention to climate change and accelerated development of alternative and “clean” energy sources like wind and solar.  In my opinion, the current Democratic view really doesn’t question any of the demand side issues about how much energy is used in our economy—it is a supply side platform.  Focusing on the climate implications of alternative energy also downplays the other important environmental costs of energy development, such as loss of biodiversity and habitat. 

“Insider” Republican candidates like Jeb Bush are climate skeptics who question the science (on which there is almost universal scientific consensus…), and continue to push the ideas of energy independence and further development of conventional energy resources like oil and natural gas.  The energy independence argument is especially fond of technological advances like fracking that reduce the costs of finding scarce resources.  Trump’s “outsider” platform almost completely ignores these issues, and when he does mention climate change in the social and traditional media forums, he appears perfectly happy to dismiss the science to the point of bragging about being misinformed.  I suspect this must play well with some of the ultra-conservative, anti-science, anti-government constituency.

At the same time, all of the candidates exhibit a lack of integration across the broad range of environmental issues.  When I did the class exercise in the past, I could usually easily find on candidate websites some type of broad statement regarding their views on environmental policy, and then more details about their policy proposals on a wide range of environmental issues such as climate, public lands, water, energy, biodiversity etc.  I found almost nothing on these broader issues in the current materials—I could only learn a few specific strategies regarding energy and climate and their positions on other related issues is vague or unstated.  Trump basically says nothing at all about any of these issues, probably as a way to signal his “outsider” status.  It is almost like the candidates have picked very specific and narrow battle lines on which to differentiate themselves, and largely ignore the other more nuanced issue dimensions.  Why waste time on these “lesser” issues that voters may pay less attention to, especially when talking about those issues suggests the candidate might care about them, or there is a risk of saying something that might offend some of your voters?

Lastly, the positions on climate and energy are more ideologically divided than in the past.  In some of the past exercises, my students would often guess wrong about whether a statement was Republican or Democrat, or a lot of the students would not raise their hand because they were uncertain.  The past statements were less ideologically extreme on average and there was more common ground on some public lands and natural resource issues. This year, the students were virtually unanimous when they voted on whether a statement was Republican or Democrat, and Trump’s knee-jerk extremism was all too obvious.  Hence, the battle lines are drawn along more partisan lines than before.

Why is this happening?  I have a few related hypotheses.  First, political science research has pointed out that voters operate in a low information environment and often do not have well-informed opinions on a broad range of issues. Hence, their decisions are heuristically based on cues from the media, political leaders, and their political junky friends.  To the extent they pay attention to politics, the average voter prefers information that confirms rather than challenges their ideological preferences.  Voters have cognitive and social limits on their attention that pushes them to consider only a few issues at a time.  These general ideas suggest that it makes sense that voters would only care about a couple of high profile issues like climate and energy. 

A second and related hypothesis is that political consultants and media advisors are getting even better at tailoring their messages to specific issues that voters care about, and ignoring other issues even if those issues could have considerable economic or environmental implications.  It takes a lot of resources to develop and deliver modern campaign information, so the political consultants focus on the battleground issues where they get the biggest bang for the buck in terms of persuading or mobilizing large segments of voters.

Lastly, could it be that we’re seeing the death of the median voter as citizens and our elected officials become more polarized around these specific sets of issues?  The median voter theorem assumes a single-peaked distribution where the largest portion of the electorate is centered around the median on a liberal-conservative scale.  Under this theory, politicians have an incentive to provide more centrist politics because any move away from the median risks losing a lot of votes. But what if the voting population in fact has become bi-modal, with one peak of voters around a more extreme conservative position and another group around a more extreme liberal position, with a big vacuum in the middle? In that case, perhaps the candidates reap electoral awards for catering to their particular group and then hoping that more voters are included in their pile of the frequency distribution rather than the other side.

These hypotheses are admittedly speculative based on my own superficial knowledge of the political behavior literature, and I don’t plan on developing any empirical research to test them.  For example, are my observations about environmental issues showing up in other issues like immigration et cetera? Is this just my own observational bias based on recent events, so that if I analyzed all past campaigns I would see the same thing?  Is there some type of cyclical pattern in the swing from centrist policy platforms to more ideological extreme and differentiated platforms? I hope my political behavior colleagues can provide some commentary on these ideas.

Regardless of the different reasons for these patterns, they are troubling for democracy.  If candidates are only providing superficial information about a relatively narrow set of issues, how are voters who desire to make a more informed decision going to find the information they need?  If candidates are ignoring the broader set of interconnected issues, how can we be confident that they have a broad political strategy for improving environmental policy in either more conservative or liberal direction, depending on your ideological preferences?  If the candidates are really going to pursue such extreme ideological positions, where is the middle ground that allows policy decisions to more forward at all, rather than be forever stalled in partisan posturing?  Clearly these patterns in environmental politics are nested in much broader social, economic, and political trends that are occurring in society, and that will be a challenge to our democratic political system going forward.