by Aaron Hersum
Well, I understand the 2016 election now: data analytics. According to Nathaniel Stinnett, Founder and CEO of the Environmental Voter Project (EVP) and veteran of many political campaigns, Trump and Clinton ran by far the most sophisticated data analytics campaigns in political history. Their managers knew every individual likely to vote in the election, how likely they were to vote for a candidate, and how to motivate those likely supporters to get out on Election Day. Big data analytics is the new norm of politics.
Now, allow me to gush for a moment about the recent BASG event, “Inside Elections and the Environmental Vote”. When Nathaniel said he was going to speak for 40 minutes before Q&A, I admittedly braced myself a little for a throwback to college lectures. After 45 minutes, however, I was disappointed there wasn’t another hour. Nathaniel deftly pulled back the curtain on how modern political campaigns function, in a polished presentation that accessibly conveyed how registered voters are profiled by policymakers in frightening detail using consumer data appended to their voter file. Everything from the clothes you buy, the media subscriptions you have, which car you drive, etc. is gathered and attached to your voting record. Nathaniel says predictive modeling surveys and analytics can predict which candidate voters will choose more accurately than calling people and directly asking them which candidate they will vote for. Additionally, Nathaniel presented a new generation of behavioral science research on why people vote called “expressive choice theory,” which suggests that we vote because we have decided voting is important to how we express ourselves, to our identity. People don’t want to be seen as non-voters. This flips historical thinking that voting is rational, that we make some sort of cost-benefit analysis before voting.
What does all this have to do with sustainability?
Apparently, super environmentalists (think: people whose top 2 most important issues would include the environment) are terrible voters. In the 2016 election, 136 million people voted. Current projections are that 10.1 million of those voters (or 7.5%) were super environmentalists. The problem is that of the remaining 64 million registered non-voters, a disproportionate number were super environmentalists. 10 million is the current estimate. If that projection holds up, super environmentalists were twice as likely to NOT vote in 2016 than the rest of the population. Per Nathaniel, the 2014 mid-term elections tell a very similar story.
Environmental issues are not being prioritized by policy makers, not because Americans don’t care about the environment, but because politicians only listen and talk to “likely voters” – their target audience. It’s a simple reality. As Nathaniel succinctly put it, campaigns don’t have the money to woo non-voters just like Ford does not market its cars to 3-year-olds. The conclusion is that unless more environmentalists vote and join that group of “likely voters”, the environment will never become a top policy priority for politicians who want to get elected.
The beauty in Nathaniel’s message is that we seem to already have a silent majority of people who care about the environment. The problem is that they are silent. In his words, “it’s like showing up to a basketball game and all your best players are already there, only they’re in the stands. You need to get them into the game.”
Big data is changing policy making, and casts the importance of voting in a new light. Even with the electoral college and the fact that voters don’t actually elect the president, even with how our election system creates swing states making votes in non-swing states even more insignificant, even though a popular majority has no bearing on outcome… voting by environmentalists matters because it increases our representation among the “likely voters” who get polled by election campaigns. “We are more powerful than ever as voters because candidates know every individual. By voting, you get your issues into the minds of policy makers.” By voting, we identify our opinions as being worthy of politicians’ time and money. And politicians, in the end, will follow the direction of voters to get elected.
Yes, we must keep shouting. But the reassuring news is we already have momentum, and simply voting as environmentalists will impact policy making. We just need to make sure everyone knows when we do. Let’s be loud and proud about it. That, all by itself, will encourage others like us to vote, because while who you vote for is secret, whether or not you vote is public information. #Iamavoter. Are you?
If you would like to sign the pledge to be an environmental voter and get free reminders before every election, please follow this link, #Imavoter, to register with EVP.