How Climate Change Helped Fuel Bernie Sanders’s Rise to the Top of the Polls

Mar 2, 2020 9:25 PM ET


Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introducing legislation to transform public housing as part of their Green New Deal proposal, on Nov. 14, 2019.

Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introducing legislation to transform public housing as part of their Green New Deal proposal, on Nov. 14, 2019.
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

BY JUSTIN WORLAND 
The rise of Bernie Sanders as the Democratic Party’s presidential frontrunner has shaken up politicians and pundits surprised that an avowedly left-wing candidate is beating more traditional rivals. These political insiders have speculated about a wide range of reasons for his rise, from the appeal of Sanders’s promise of free universal health care to the large field of moderates to challenge him.

There is undoubtedly a long and complex list of reasons for his success, but there’s one factor that often gets swept under the rug by political pundits: Sanders’s positioning of himself as the climate candidate in a race where voters care a lot about climate change.

Polling shows how the issue of climate has captured the attention of voters. Across the early states in the Democratic primary, global warming has consistently ranked as voters’ second priority, after health care. In Iowa, 21% of Democratic caucus goers ranked it as the most important issue; in New Hampshire, 25% of Democratic primary voters said the same; in Nevada, that number hit 25%.

There’s a pretty clear reason for that concern. Despite media neglect of the topic, people in those states are feeling the issue in their backyards. In Iowa, as I reported from the state last year, residents have faced a series of catastrophic floods that destroyed communities and hurt the ailing agricultural sector. New Hampshire’s winter sports industry is suffering from the unpredictable winter weather. In Nevada, high temperatures combined with drought pose an existential threat to the city of Las Vegas. “We have to do something in order to ensure that we have a future,” said Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, at a climate-themed press conference ahead of his state’s caucuses, adding that voters in his state view climate change as “one of the top issues.”

These states may have special stories, but polling suggests the interest in climate isn’t likely to disappear. Nearly 30% of voters in states with primaries between Feb. 22 and March 17, in other words the next batch of states to vote and caucus, say climate change is one of their top two issues, according to a poll released by Climate Nexus, in partnership with the Yale University and George Mason University.

All the Democratic candidates talk about climate change, to varying extents, yet Sanders has succeeded at portraying himself as the climate candidate. For years, Sanders has talked about the issue, including calling it an “existential threat” when most laughed off the characterization.

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