While only a slight majority of Americans view climate change and the environment as one of the most important issues facing the country, the most recent Pew Research poll demonstrated that a whopping 74% of Democratic respondents believe it should be a “top priority for Trump and Congress this year.” The Center for American Progress found that it was the second-most relevant issue for likely Democratic primary voters, one percentage point after healthcare. That is exactly what Governor Jay Inslee (D-WA) was counting on when he announced a candidacy for president that would be based almost solely on climate and environmental policy.
However, the latest Morning Consult poll has him just breaking 1% in a crowded field of Democratic contenders. He didn’t even reach that in the most recent polls from Emerson or Quinnipiac. So despite the overwhelming support from likely primary voters for his signature issue, Inslee’s candidacy barely seems to register with the electorate.
Of course, part of this is simply due to a lack of name recognition in comparison with icons like former Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT). Another possible reason is that his specific proposals regarding climate change or environmental policy are just not what primary voters are looking for, especially with the release of the Green New Deal. But another, more pressing problem, might be with the nature of single-issue candidacies in and of themselves.
Single-issue politics have an intentionally narrow appeal. They involve political candidacies, parties, or voters with a devotion to one specific policy position, so much so that this defining issue comes to characterize the candidate or party in question. If the number of single-issue voters for these particular policies is large enough, such candidates have a shot at winning. However, while single-issue voters are becoming more common (think anti-abortion voters or gun-control advocates), single-issue candidates in the United States remain incredibly rare.
One possible reason for the persistent lack of single-issue candidates or parties in the U.S. is the two-party system. Although a few such parties have existed in the past, including the Free Soil Party (dedicated to abolishing slavery) or the Prohibition Party (dedicated to, well, prohibition), they were never able to gain widespread support due to the power of the two major parties and their tendency to take on the most popular issues.
Single-issue politics seem to be more sustainable in governments that allow for multiple parties through proportional representation systems. Notable examples would include Australia’s Animal Justice Party or the United Kingdom’s recently formed Brexit Party, a single-issue party that is on track to gain a plurality in the U.K.’s delegation to the European Parliament.
Nevertheless, although current polling has him near the bottom of the list, Inslee’s candidacy could still have an outsized impact on the policies put forward by the eventual Democratic nominee.
By making climate change his primary issue, Inslee has the opportunity to potentially force other Democratic candidates to make environmental policy central to their own campaigns, or at least drive national conversation in that direction. The most concrete chance to do this would be on the debate stage, an event that Inslee has already qualified for through his performance in the polls (candidates need to receive 1% or more in at least three reputable polls to qualify, according to DNC rules).
It is also possible that his candidacy is driving other Democratic contenders to take more comprehensive policy positions in relation to climate change. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently released a new plan for public lands that includes an end to fossil fuel leasing and a commitment to using renewable resources. In addition, the New York Times just published an article asking all of the 2020 Democratic candidates to stake out their own positions on specific climate issues.
Even though single-issue politics have not had the best luck in the United States, they nonetheless offer parties and candidates a valuable platform to advocate for their signature ideas. So while making it to the White House might still be a long shot, do not be too surprised if some of Inslee’s policy proposals make it into the Democratic platform come July 2020.