Life as we know it has changed dramatically in a mere five months. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as our daily lives are shifting, so too are the things we prioritize and value most.
Our recent Winning the West 2020 poll shows in the midst of a global pandemic voters in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Nevada connection to the outdoors has never been deeper and support for public lands conservation is growing.
The poll underscores what we found in the research of the past several election cycles: public land conservation is a winning campaign issue. Heading into the 2020 elections, we estimate an outdoor voting bloc 2 million strong across the West made up of people who take public lands and outdoor issues to heart when deciding which candidates to support. This year, we expect outdoor voters will play an even more decisive role in the outcome of close races than in past election cycles.
That’s because a growing number of outdoor enthusiasts in key Western swing states are taking a stand for their public lands. 81 percent of Western voters say national public lands, parks, and wildlife issues are important to them in deciding which candidate to vote for in Presidential and Congressional elections. The importance of public lands, parks and wildlife issues increased during the COVID-19 pandemic for 34 percent of voters, while remaining durable for the rest.
In hypothetical candidate match-ups, 55 percent of voters selected a candidate who believes the outdoors are what defines the West, wants to prioritize protecting public lands and argues for managing oil and gas development on public lands with safeguards. That is compared to 17 percent of voters who say they prefer a candidate who says the federal government has overreached on public lands and supports prioritizing local control and deregulating oil and gas extraction to increase domestic energy production and create good-paying jobs in the West.
We also tested messages on public lands and outdoor issues. Strong majorities of voters across the political spectrum indicated they would be more likely to support candidates who say:
- “We need to protect MORE parks and public lands, creating more treasured places for Americans to visit and explore”
- “Public lands and parks provide some of the best opportunities to invest in America and get our people back to work.”
- “Protecting our public lands, waters and wildlife is part of our Western way of life. Hunters, hikers and families expect these lands to be protected — from soaring mountains to our deepest valleys. That’s what makes the West a special place to live.”
- “Our public lands and natural resources transcend politics. Republicans and Democrats have protected and ensured access to treasured lands, mountains and deserts since the days of Teddy Roosevelt.”
- “With drought, wildfires, mudslides and unpredictable weather, climate change has made it clear that it’s more important than ever to protect our natural resources, public lands and open spaces.”
The positive responses for pro-conservation messages translate into support for policies to keep public lands protected, funded and safe, with two new conservation proposals already gaining popularity. The 30×30 plan to protect 30 percent of America’s land and water by 2030 receives support from 75 percent of Western voters. 64 percent support the goal of making public lands a net zero source of carbon pollution so the positive impacts of forests and land in creating clean air can outweigh the carbon pollution caused by oil, gas and coal extraction.
By contrast, we saw strong voter disapproval of recent anti-conservation federal administration policies. 60 percent of voters oppose actions taken during the pandemic to loosen environmental rules including relaxing air quality standards for offshore drilling, expanding new mining operations on public lands and proposing to remove penalties on energy companies for harming birds in oil spills. Voters also oppose stimulus and giveaways to oil, gas, and mining corporations, which the Interior Department under Secretary David Bernhardt has bent over backwards to provide. Instead, Western voters want to see stimulus packages for the industries that support strong local economies— outdoor recreation and tourism, small businesses, and agriculture.
Candidates in some of the most competitive elections in the Mountain West are starting to take notice and are appealing to the growing outdoor voting bloc. We are already seeing political advertisements and campaign statements from both Democrats and Republicans focusing directly on public lands issues and proposals.
This election cycle, a lot divides us. But we know public lands unite us now more than ever. In the Mountain West, public lands and the lifestyles they support are bringing people together in a time of isolation, distance, and political tension. As we near November’s historic elections, the outdoor voting bloc is one to watch.
Jennifer Rokala is the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a public lands watchdog and advocacy group based in Denver. To learn more about Winning the West, please go to OutdoorVoter.org