There are, at this point, more than 20 candidates running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2020. Since March 1, they’ve cumulatively tweeted nearly 12,000 times.
About 7 percent of those tweets were about President Trump or Republicans. Another 7 percent were about the economy (determined by looking for keywords like “jobs" or “wage”). About 6 percent addressed climate change and another 6 percent addressed health care. There’s an important caveat to those numbers: More than half of the climate change tweets came from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), whose campaign is overtly predicated on the subject.
Only two of the climate change tweets (identified by looking for words like “climate” or “carbon”) came from former vice president Joe Biden, who tweeted 105 times in total.
Those two tweets? One was part of a thread of tweets outlining his policy proposals. The one mentioning climate change was the second-to-last tweet, followed only by a tweet encouraging people to sign up for more information about his events.
A few days later, he tweeted his support for legislation recommitting the United States to the Paris climate agreement.
That was it.
While other candidates had similarly infrequent climate change tweets as a function of all of their tweets over the period, Biden was unusual in that he did tweet relatively heavily about one of the other subjects: 13 percent of his tweets dealt with the economy.
On Friday, Reuters reported on Biden’s policy plans for addressing the warming planet. Biden, the report stated, “is crafting a climate change policy he hopes will appeal to both environmentalists and the blue-collar voters who elected Donald Trump, according to two sources, carving out a middle ground approach that will likely face heavy resistance from green activists.”
The toplines: Rejoin the international Paris accord, reinstitute fuel efficiency standards implemented under Barack Obama and remain open to nonrenewable and fossil-fuel-based options, such as nuclear energy or carbon-capture (in which carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels is captured instead of being released into the atmosphere).
If this is an accurate encapsulation of Biden’s proposals, it’s a remarkably timid approach. (The campaign suggests that it isn’t.) This outline mirrors much of what Obama advocated, but leaves out bolder moves made by Biden’s former boss, such as the Obama administration’s efforts to curb emissions from existing power plants — an effort that quickly led to a massive political fight. (The Trump administration kneecapped that proposal during his first year in office.)
The tell is in that effort to appeal to “blue-collar voters," as Reuters has it. The way that’s meant to be read is that Biden doesn’t want to aggravate “coal country” — meaning West Virginia and parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Obama was criticized, often hyperbolically, for launching a “war on coal," something that Trump seized upon in 2016. When his general-election opponent Hillary Clinton declared that the United States would put coal miners out of work as the economy moved away from the carbon-heavy fuel source, it did not help her position in those states.
That is a position that’s sharply at odds with the Democratic electorate. In recent CNN-SSRS polling, 96 percent of Democratic primary voters said that it was at least somewhat important to take aggressive action on the climate. More than 8 in 10 said it was very important. Even among moderates, Biden’s biggest base of support in the primary, 78 percent said it was very important. That’s a higher percentage than the density of Democratic voters overall who identified Medicare-for-all as very important.
It would be a sign that, on this issue at least, Biden’s aiming for the general election. His tweets weren’t an endorsement of anything sweeping, such as the Green New Deal. Instead, he pitched rejoining Paris (the status quo in 2016) and policies that would create jobs and ... create faster transportation? This is not cribbed from a Sierra Club pamphlet.
But it’s also probably a misread on the general election electorate. Biden’s not going to win West Virginia, a state that Trump has been wooing consistently since he took office and that backed the incumbent president by more than 41 points. He’s not going to win Kentucky, which Trump won by 30 points.
If he wants to win Ohio or Pennsylvania, he has a few paths to do so. One is the 2016 path: scrambling to pull away some of those white working-class voters that Trump mobilized to narrowly take Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. The other is the 2018 path: exciting Democrats who stayed home in 2016 to come out to the polls.
If you’re wondering which path is more viable, consider the following. A study released last year found that 4.4 million Obama voters didn’t cast a ballot in 2016, a third of them black — a constituency with whom Biden currently polls well. (Ninety-six percent of nonwhite Democrats in CNN’s poll said urgent climate action was at least somewhat important.) Gallup polling released last month, meanwhile, found that working-class white voters weren’t swung by Trump in 2016 as much as they were continuing a significant rightward drift over the past several decades.
Climate change is a deeply polarizing issue, the target of more than a decade of pointed efforts to drag the electorate in one direction or the other. One can always try to find middle ground on controversial positions, of course, but in this case the middle-ground position is fervently opposed by many Democratic voters who are concerned about the need for urgent action to address the warming climate. Biden may hope to neutralize Republican opposition in key areas, but he risks similarly neutralizing Democratic enthusiasm.
Biden’s running as a moderate — and the climate change agenda reported by Reuters is a good example of what that can look like.
Update: After Reuters’ report was published, Biden tweeted again about climate change.