Ep. 58. Nathaniel Stinnett, Environmental Voter Project

NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another edition of The MidPod: The Midterms Podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. We're in the homestretch to Election Day now and we are hoping to connect with some of you on the road. We'll be in Austin, Texas September 27th to 29th for Trib Fest and we'll be reporting in the Minneapolis area on the key races there around Columbus Day. We'll also have a booth at Politicon in L.A. October 20th and 21st. We're hoping to organize listener meet ups or potlucks in all three cities. So e-mail us at squad@themidpod.com or reach out on social if you are interested. Now as you know the MidPod is all about active citizenship and voting. And one thing we have learned on our journey is that candidates for office tune their policy stances to the preferences of the likely voters in the district or state they hope to represent. As they craft a strategy to win at the polls, the needs and desires of people who don't or can't vote simply don't matter as much. Following on our interview about climate policy with Sean Casten in Illinois six last week we want to share with you a conversation with Nathaniel Stinnett at the Environmental Voter Project. He's combining state-of-the-art data mining with old-fashioned volunteer organizing to find citizens who care passionately about the environment but don't vote, and get those people to the polls. You may be as surprised as we were to learn how large and potentially influential this group is.

NICIE: Would you like to introduce yourself for our listeners?

NATHANIEL STINNETT: Sure. So I'm the executive director and founder of the Environmental Voter Project, we're a nonpartisan nonprofit that is laser focused on just one thing and that's finding environmentalists who aren't voting and then turning them into better voters.

NICIE: Tell us a little bit about your path. How did you get to this point into this work?

STINNETT: So I had spent over a decade running campaigns or being a senior strategist for campaigns and I was always deeply frustrated by something that you might be aware of if not painfully aware of and that's this. Whenever you poll voters anywhere whether for a city council race or president or anything in between and ask those voters about the issues they care about most, environmental issues are always towards the bottom of their priorities. And that has a huge impact not only on campaigns but on the policy that we make because I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican, liberal or conservative. If voters don't care about a particular set of issues there's no way politicians are going to care about those issues and that deeply deeply frustrated me. But about four or five years ago I started to see a whole lot of data that really surprised me and ultimately led to us starting the Environmental Voter Project.

NICIE: Could you just share what sparked your commitment to environmental causes?

STINNETT: I wish I could say it was some dramatic blinding light on the road to Damascus or something like that. It wasn't. I had always deeply cared about environmental issues. But to be honest I never thought there was an efficient political solution to these problems because voters didn't deeply care about these issues. And so I always worked very hard for environmental candidates but never thought that there was an easy political solution to these problems. But I will say this even though I've always cared about environmental issues whether it be clean air or clean water or conservation or climate change, certainly becoming a father made that even more important to me. It made me realize that I shouldn't just care about the issues that were impacting me and my wife and my generation, but I had to care about the issues that would impact my children.

NICIE: We're sitting here in Boston in Boston we've had recent storms that are really game changers. Do you want to just describe some of the things that we're seeing here in terms of impacts?

STINNETT: Absolutely. We only started the Environmental Voter Project about two and a half years ago. But it's amazing to see even the changes over the past two and a half years. When we had our first class of summer interns, the fun summer excursions that we would take would be things like whale watching or going to a baseball game. Last summer, two times they all wanted to go and see the king tides that had overflowed into the streets of Boston and were flooding. Now obviously it's it's irresponsible to claim that a change over one year is an indicator of changing climate. But it's amazing. We were seeing downtown Boston streets in the financial district flooded and I've lived in Boston for over 20 years and that's not something I was used to.

NICIE: So tell us more about EVP, the work the you're doing and how you kind of got started.

STINNETT: I started looking at some polls leading into the 2014 midterm elections and what was really interesting was I started to see that even though voters list climate change and other environmental issues towards the bottom of their priorities, when you look at all American adults you don't see the same thing. I'm not going to claim that all American adults list climate change as their number one priority. They don't. But it's somewhere in the middle. And once I saw that I started looking at more and more polls and some predictive models and some voter files and I started to realize something that totally blew my mind. And that was the environmental movement might not have a persuasion problem as much as we have a turnout problem. The more I looked into it the more I realized the reason so few voters prioritize environmental issues is not because too few Americans do. There are actually tens of millions of Americans who list climate change and the environment as one of their top priorities. So why aren't those people showing up in polls of voters? Well it's because environmentalists aren't voting. We've got a turnout problem. And the more I realize that the more I realized we need an organization that doesn't just worry about the next election, that doesn't just worry about electing the right candidates because if all you care about is who's going to win on a Tuesday in November, you can't talk to bad voters. You can only talk to good voters. But if the majority of environmentalists are bad voters? Well we need a group that is focused on fixing that problem and fixing this long-term turnout problem and that's what we do.

NICIE: So tell me about these I guess sporadic or nonvoting environmentalists. How do you characterize them and how do you get your arms around who they are?

STINNETT: So first let me just start by giving you some data so you can see how enormous this problem is but also how enormous the opportunity is. In the 2016 presidential election, sixty-nine percent of registered voters voted, but only 50 percent of environmentalists did. And it was even worse in the 2014 midterms. In 2014 44 percent of registered voters voted but only 21 percent of environmentalists did. Now to get to your other questions, who are these people and how do we define them? At the Environmental Voter Project because we're not trying to persuade people to care about the environment, we're just finding the ones who are already persuaded and then getting them to vote, we actually have a very stringent definition of who an environmentalist is. We're focused on people who care so deeply about climate change and the environment that they list these issues as either their number one priority over all others or their number two priority over all others. And who are these people? Well they're not the stereotypical environmentalists that you might imagine. They're not me. They're not white yuppies. Maybe they used to be but they're not anymore. More and more we're seeing that these super environmentalists tend to be African-American, Latino. They usually live within five miles of an urban core. And yes they tend to be younger but more and more we're seeing a lot of women in their 60s and early 70s who really really deeply care about these issues as well.

NICIE: Heather and I have been traveling all over America and we have these citizen potlucks in every congressional district that we visit. There has not been a potluck supper that we have had where some environmental issue has has not come up or has not been surfaced in our reporting. And yet as you point out it may be crowded out by other concerns. So we tend to hear them at sort of the middle register the decibel range I guess you could say. But there are for sure those voters for whom this is really profound. Tell me again how you are exactly identifying them and geographically where are you targeting?

STINNETT: So the Environmental Voter Project is focused on six states at the moment: Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. And the reason we're in those six states is in each of those states we have found enormous populations not just of environmentalists but of non-voting environmentalists. And that's what we need. We need a target-rich environment in order to have an impact. Now how do we identify these people? We start by running enormous polls. We will poll 10,15 sometimes even 20,000 people per state. And we'll ask them just a few very simple questions. First we'll make sure that the right person has picked up the phone because we're polling these people off of voter files. We want to make sure that we've got Joe Smith the 32 year-old and not Joe Smith the 67 year-old who picked up the phone. And then we simply ask, what's your number one most important political priority? What's your number two most important political priority? OK, thanks have a nice day.

STINNETT: And then we move on to the next person, and then we aggregate all of these results and we see who are the people who listed environmental issues as one of their top two priorities, and then we work with data scientists to compare all of those responses with all of the data that's in the voter file because voter files can tell you some really interesting things about people. Their age, their gender, where they live, their voting habits, their party affiliation, and more and more, some behavioral and consumer data as well. And so these data scientists look for all of these hidden patterns and correlations and they can see oh look there are a whole bunch of people who recently bought an electric vehicle and live in the suburbs outside of St. Petersburg and have two kids who listed climate change as their number one priority. And they they look for these hidden patterns and correlations and build these models for us on the voter file. And it sounds like a a very complicated process but it's actually what pretty much every sophisticated political campaign is doing now. Nobody targets by demographic group anymore. They target on an individual basis. And so we know by name and street address who all all of our targets are. And that's how we communicate with them too. We individually talk to them by canvas, by phone, by text, by mail, by digital advertisements, and we're very confident that we're talking to people who are already persuaded environmentalists.

NICIE: So you're basically using the methodology that Target or J Crew or any other major consumer or company would use, a car company?

STINNETT: That's exactly right. And I actually think what may be the most apt comparison and something that a lot of people might have some familiarity with is insurance companies. If you think about it when you apply say for life insurance they start by asking you a whole bunch of questions. They say what are your exercise habits? How much do you drink? How much do you smoke? What's your medical history? Do you like to dive off cliffs? They get all this information and then they essentially build a predictive model just like we do. They don't call it a predictive model they call it an actuarial table and there are slight differences but they're essentially taking all of your personal information, comparing it to the information they've got from a whole bunch of other people, and not to get morbid but they have to predict when you're going to die and not only that they have to do it with real precision or else they lose billions of dollars. And so we're kind of taking the same approach except we're not trying to predict how long you're going to live. We're trying to predict how likely you are to be a super environmentalist.

NICIE: So you started in Massachusetts and maybe you could just walk us through how the project has unfolded here in Massachusetts and then talk about how you're expanding.

STINNETT: So we started in Massachusetts in the fall of 2015 and the reason we started in Massachusetts was well there were a few reasons. First and perhaps most importantly it's where I live. But second we knew that from November of 2015 to November of 2016 there were going to be a lot of elections in Massachusetts. That sounds obvious but the only way to turn a non-voter into a voter is to have an election. And so we wanted to have lots of elections to prove our concept and so we started with the municipal elections in Boston in November 2015. Then we had the Super Tuesday presidential primaries in March of 2016. We had some state senate elections that spring and then the presidential general election. And every time we mobilize to these seldom voting and non-voting environmentalists, we submitted our work to randomized control trials. They're the gold standard of behavioral science experiments and they allowed us to prove how big an impact we were having on turnout. In each of these elections, we were sending turnout through the roof. Every single time we mobilized voters, we increased turnout 2.8 to 4.5 percent. And to some people I know those might sound like small numbers but in politics, 2, 3, 4 percent is everything.

NICIE: And we're talking about 2 or 3 or 4 percent of the electorate incrementally turning out?

STINNETT: Incrementally but not of the electorate, of the environmentalists we were targeting, but that's still enormous because I should tell you what the denominators are that we're dealing with here. We identified across the country 10.1 million already-registered environmentalists who never left their house on Election Day for the presidential election. If we increase turnout just 3 percent out of that 10.1 million, that would have added 300,000 brand-new environmentalists to the electorate, in the election that was only decided by 77,000 votes. So these are really really big numbers and off that success in Massachusetts we were then able to expand. And so last year in 2017 we expanded into Georgia in the spring and then in the fall just a year ago we expanded into Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.

NICIE: So you'll be in all those states for that 2018 midterm elections?

STINNETT: That's right. So for these midterm elections we are targeting, and again remember I mean that in the most precise way, 2.4 million super environmentalists and we know them all by name and street address who are already registered to vote, but we know from their previous voting history that they're really really unlikely to show up on November 6th. And these are our targets. We're canvassing them. We're calling them, we're texting them, we're sending them direct mail, we're sending them digital advertisements, but most importantly, we're not talking about the environment. We know that these people are already persuaded, they're already with us, and all we're doing is using the messaging that we're confident will increase their likelihood of voting.

NICIE: And do you have a sense within those tactics that you use which is the most effective?

STINNETT: Peer pressure. We all need to revert back to fourth grade when we start thinking about get out to vote strategies and we're really good at this but I'm not going to claim that we're mad scientists who have discovered something that no one else knows. A lot of behavioral scientists have realized over the past five, six years and a lot of sophisticated political campaigns have realized that the best way to get someone out the door on Election Day is to use social pressure and peer pressure. I'll give you some examples. We will send letters to people that say Nicie, I just wanted to remind you that who you vote for is secret, but whether you vote or not is public information and we predict that 93 people on your block of Main Street are going to show up to vote on Tuesday. Are you going to be one of them? Sometimes we'll even include a copy of your own voting history just to show that yes this is public information. And the reason that works so well is something really interesting. We've realized that even people who don't vote still buy into the societal norm that voting is a good thing. They still want to be known as good voters. And if you tell them that their neighbors are really good at voting they want to compete with their neighbors. They want to be a good voter. And so simply saying that drives turnout in a much more dramatic way than trying to rationally convince someone of the value of their vote. It doesn't work.

NICIE: Do you have a state you're particularly excited about in this cycle?

STINNETT: Nevada. Nevada is so so important. It's not only important for just plain old geopolitical reasons. Two out of their four congressional races are going to be close. They've got a tight gubernatorial election, a tight U.S. Senate election, but we're also dealing with a really small denominator. I mean maybe 600,000 people will turn out to vote. That's not much. I mean there have been municipal elections on the East Coast where twice as many people show up to vote but also for the environmental movement. Nevada and other mountain west states are really where all of the big fights are going on. The fight between fossil fuels and clean energy, a lot of droughts, it's where impacts of climate change are being felt the most. And then finally it also happens to be where we see the highest populations of non-voting environmentalists. So those three factors together politically important, it is the frontier of our nation's great environmental battles, and it happens to be where there are the most nonvoting environmentalists. So we are really laser-focused on Nevada but I'll also throw out Arizona, Colorado, Florida. These are all going to be really really important states for the environmental movement this year.

HEATHER ATWOOD: Well I want to ask the obvious question. I know our listeners will want to know too, why aren't they voting?

STINNETT: That is a great great question Heather and I will give you an honest and I think very nuanced but ultimately probably unsatisfying answer. We don't know why these people aren't voting and it's not for lack of trying. We have done a lot of I think very compelling and interesting research trying to figure it out. So first let me start by saying any behavioral scientist can tell you it's easy to set up an experiment that tells you how to get someone to take an action. What's really hard to do is the opposite. What's really hard to do is set up a rigorous experiment that tells you why someone is not taking an action, like voting. Really the only thing you can do is ask them and I'll tell you what happens when you ask people why they're not voting. They lie their pants off. They lie their pants off! We asked people why they don't vote or we did it in a more subtle I think easier to answer way than that, we said when you don't vote, what are your reasons for not voting? The overwhelming majority of respondents something like I forget whether it was 72 percent or 78 percent somewhere in the 70s, said I always vote.

STINNETT: I want to go back to something I said earlier. Whether you vote or not is public record. When we were conducting this survey we knew for a fact that we were only talking to people who had never voted before, and the overwhelming majority of them said oh no I always vote and I'll tell you something, we thought they might lie so we actually had a backup question ready to go and we said, OK well you know maybe you usually vote but on the rare occasion that you don't vote what are your reasons for not voting? We wanted to make it easier for them, we wanted to get this information. Well a slightly smaller majority but still a majority still more than 50 percent said, no you don't get it. I always vote. And so that tells us two really interesting things. One, it tells us it's really hard with any precision and honesty and rigor to figure out why people aren't voting because they lie. But two, that goes back to what I was saying earlier. Social pressure and peer pressure are some of the most impactful ways to get someone to vote because even someone who doesn't vote cares so deeply that other people think of them as being a good voter that they'll lie their pants off to volunteers on the phone who they don't even know and swear up and down that they vote all the time. That societal norm is something that we try to take advantage of in turning nonvoters into voters.

HEATHER: It's an interesting question because sometimes when we talk to people they are actually like on the street or you know in a mall they're hostile to the concept of voting. They are not in that category. They are negative about the system and they don't believe in it. So it's surprising to us in a way, but I think probably good news that there are lots of people who do think voting is a good thing.

STINNETT: That's right. And if you think about it this is not dissimilar to some other Get Out The Vote tactics that maybe both of you and your listeners are familiar with. My guess is anybody who is done canvassing in the past five or six years has gone to a voter's door, simply asked that person if they intend to vote, and if they do, maybe then ask that person to sign a pledge card promising to vote. And the behavioral science behind that is actually pretty sophisticated and has to do with these societal norms I'm talking about. The reason you ask a voter to sign a pledge card is not so you can remind that person about the election later on. They're not going to forget that the election is happening. The reason you get them to sign that pledge card and then mail it back to them is because all of us unless you're a sociopath, want to be known as honest, trustworthy people who keep their promises. So if you then mail that pledge card back to them and say hey Nicie, hey Heather, look you made a promise that you're going to vote, Tuesday is your opportunity to follow through on that promise. Well you're getting someone to adhere to that societal norm. You're getting someone to to adhere to a way that they want to present themselves which is as honest, trustworthy people.

HEATHER: I was curious if you could talk specifically about texting, we just had a really significant primary election in Florida particularly the gubernatorial primary on the Democratic side where at least participants in the Get Out The Vote effort are claiming that a very significant percentage of the primary electorate had not voted before in a primary, where they attribute their success to texting campaigns. Do you agree that that's a magic elixir for particularly younger voters?

STINNETT: I think it is extraordinarily powerful. I'm not sure anything is a magic elixir but you know we are the data nerds of the environmental movement of the Environmental Voter Project and we're essentially a full-time field laboratory running dozens of randomized controlled trials every year measuring what interventions and what messages are the best at increasing turnout. And yes we see really dramatic results from text messages just from this summer. We ran very very large experiments in Colorado and Nevada and Georgia that saw dramatic increases in turnout just from sending text messages. So an example is we had a 1.1 percent increase in turnout in our randomized controlled trial in Georgia just from sending text messages, and not only is 1.1 percent a big deal in this business, but sending text messages is cheap. It's usually three or four cents per message sent. Now what makes me hesitate to believe what people are saying about Florida is no one knows yet if the text messages worked in Florida it's going to take another six weeks for voter files to be updated for us to see who voted and who didn't vote. But, I'm not saying they're wrong. Text messages are really powerful and no one picks up their phone these days. But everybody looks to see if they got a text message. So it is powerful. I don't know how long it's going to remain powerful. Maybe two three years from now no one's going to pay attention to a random text message they get. But for the moment it's a really powerful tool.

NICIE: I was just curious given that environmental and climate change issues are truly and intrinsically global in nature whether you have peer organizations in other countries that are doing similar work.

STINNETT: Not that we're aware of. There certainly could be. But I'll also say I'm not sure there is the need for an organization like ours in many other countries. Maybe there is but we really are trying to address a fairly unique problem here in the United States and that is that environmentalists aren't voting. But that's also a huge opportunity. Changing someone's mind is so hard especially around climate change and the environment. But getting them to take an action, getting them to vote, I'm not going to claim that's easy. Of course it's not easy, but it's a heck of a lot easier and a heck of a lot cheaper than changing people's minds. And I think this is somewhat unique to the United States. You look at a lot of European countries or Asian countries or African or South American countries and there are politically powerful environmental movements. In the United States, we have a large and active environmental movement but we're not necessarily flexing our muscles on Election Day.

NICIE: Many other countries have multi-party systems and there may be a dedicated party or a party that's very very focused on environmental issues which we don't exactly have the same way.

STINNETT: I think that's right. But I want to stress something here because sometimes when people hear the data that we talk about they hang their heads and they say oh my gosh this is such awful news environmentalists aren't voting. And I want to stress the enormity of this opportunity. Let's pretend I told you that we've done lots of polling and it turns out no one cares about climate change. That would be bad news, because changing people's minds is increasingly hard, especially around climate change and environmental issues. But that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying the opposite. We've identified 10, 15, 20 million registered voters who care so deeply about these issues that they list them as one of their top two priorities. The only problem is they're not showing up when we need them to. And that is an eminently solvable problem. We have this sleeping Green Giant out there that could be just as if not more powerful than the NRA. It's just that environmentalists aren't used to flexing our muscles in a political way. We express ourselves in other ways. We are changing our eating habits or our transportation habits or our purchasing habits. But until we show up and actually start voting, we're not going to have an impact.

NICIE: I would imagine if you were giving this pitch to a candidate they would be very excited to grab hold potentially of the voters that you're talking about. Do you see candidates responding to what you're doing and trying to harness you as your work as an aide to their campaigns?

STINNETT: Yes and no. I mean I want to be clear we're a completely nonpartisan nonprofit. We don't endorse anybody, we don't support or oppose anybody. Certainly there are candidates who are excited about this potential Green electorate but we take I mean some would say a cynical approach I would say a very clear eyed approach to political change. Politicians go where the votes are. It's just that simple. I don't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican or a liberal or a conservative you go where the votes are. It's just arithmetic. It's quite literally how elections work. Either you go where the votes are or you don't get to be a politician anymore. And so at the Environmental Voter Project, we don't even care if a single politician knows who we are. If we do our job, and we get environmentalists to vote, politicians are going to follow the voters, because whether you vote or not is public record. And the first decision any campaign makes is they look at public voter files and they say, OK who are we going to and who are we not going to talk to. And they sure as hell don't talk to the people who aren't going to show up to vote. But if we pack that small group of consistent voters with environmentalists, politicians will follow suit or else they won't get to be politicians anymore.

NICIE: So if our listeners want to find out more about your work how would you direct them?

STINNETT: Please go to environmentalvoter.org. We have over 1700 volunteers around the country. We make it really easy for you to get trained and then canvas call or text people in these six states where we're operating in. And even if you don't live in one of those states, if you live in Boise, Idaho, you can through the Environmental Voter Project, make sure that environmentalists in Florida or Nevada or Pennsylvania show up to vote this fall. And we would love to have your help.

NICIE: Nathaniel Stinnett, thank you so much for your time today.

STINNETT: Thank you.

NICIE: That was Nathaniel Stinnett of the Environmental Voter Project. Tune in on Friday to hear another passionate environmentalist, Mike Levin. He's the Democratic nominee in California's 49th District, which stretches along the coast north of San Diego into southern Orange County. He's vying against Republican Diane Harkey to replace retiring Congressman Darrell Issa. That's it for now. Thanks for listening and see you soon.


Eunice Panetta