So far, climate change hasn’t surfaced as a top issue for American voters. Could the 2020 presidential election mark a turning point?

There finally seems to be some real momentum. The ambitious Green New Deal legislation introduced by Democrats in the U.S. Congress presents a clear strategy to combat climate change. It’s captured the attention of the media and the public.

If the environment does gain steam as a major issue for voters as we head into the presidential election, Seattle is likely to be among the first places it happens.

New survey data from market-research giant Nielsen show that the Seattle area ranks second among 100 metros for the percentage of voters who care about politicians’ positions on environmental issues.

Among people who say they always vote in presidential elections, about 30 percent in the Seattle area said that they support politicians based on their environmental positions. That’s nearly twice the 16 percent average for all metro areas surveyed.

Nielsen interviewed more than 400,000 adults age 18 and up in large metro areas across the U.S., including 4,550 in the Seattle area (King and Snohomish counties), between September 2016 and August 2018.


San Francisco ranked a little ahead of Seattle, with 31 percent of voters saying they support politicians based on environmental positions. Other high-ranking metros include: Durham, North Carolina; Oakland, California; and Silver Spring, Maryland. These places are all characterized by a highly educated and affluent population.

The places at the bottom of the list, where the percentage of “green” voters is in the single digits, are mostly poorer and in the south — though Gary, Indiana, ranked in last place.

In Miami, where the rising sea level is already an issue, only 14 percent said they cared about politicians’ environmental positions, slightly below average.

If you’re someone who acknowledges the threat of climate change and the urgency of taking immediate action, these numbers probably seem very low. Even in the Seattle area, the clear majority of voters said that environmental positions aren’t at the forefront of their mind at the ballot box.

And indeed, polling data seems to reveal conflicted feelings among the American public about the importance of climate change.

The majority of Americans now acknowledge the existence of climate change, and a slight majority accept that it’s caused by human activity. A survey conducted in December by Yale University found that an all-time high of 29 percent of Americans were “alarmed” about climate change, more than double the number from the same survey in 2013. And a 2018 Pew Research Center study found that most Americans feel climate change is currently affecting their local community, at least to some degree.


Even so, when they go to the ballot box, climate change doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of most Americans’ minds. In the recent midterm elections, a variety of climate-change-focused initiatives around the country only had mixed success. Washington’s high-profile carbon-fee Initiative 1631 failed.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted just before the midterm elections asked likely voters about global warming and five other issues — taxes, the economy, immigration, health care and border security. Global warming was the only one that the majority of voters did not consider to be among the most important issues to them.

And in February, when Gallup asked Americans to identify the most important problem facing the nation, just 3 percent singled out the environment/pollution (the poll did not include climate change or global warming as a response).

One reason some of these numbers seem so low can be explained by party affiliation. There’s a big divide between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to acknowledging climate change.

The Nielsen data show that even in the Seattle area, just 2 percent of people who identify as Republican, or who lean Republican, care about a politician’s stance on the environment. In contrast, among people who identify as Democrat, or who lean Democrat, it’s nearly half (47 percent). Independents are between the two, at 18 percent.

The data show that “green” voters around Seattle also tend to be more affluent, with a median household income of almost $100,000, and highly educated — 44 percent had an advanced or professional degree. Millennials are the most likely to support politicians based on environmental issues, and seniors the least likely.

It’s perhaps not coincidental that Seattle produced the one Democratic hopeful for 2020 who’s made climate change the cornerstone of his platform: Washington governor Jay Inslee.

Recent polling shows it may be an uphill battle for him.