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Democratic Voters Care About Climate Change, But Not Enough To Support Jay Inslee

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee got into the presidential race because climate change is the “most urgent challenge of our time.” And although he announced on Wednesday that he was dropping out (he plans to seek a third term as governor instead), Inslee did bring more attention to his key issue — CNN is now scheduled to hold a town hall where 10 Democratic candidates will discuss the “climate crisis” in early September, for example. But that wasn’t enough to convince voters Inslee was the right choice.

Part of Inslee’s problem was that he struggled to improve his standing in the polls since he first declared he was running in March. Inslee qualified for the first two debates and even cleared one of the two hurdles for making the third debate — he hit the Democratic National Committee’s 130,000-donor threshold, but he never cracked 2 percent in a qualifying poll. That meant he wouldn’t get invited to the third debate or even to CNN’s town hall on climate change, as they used the same polling thresholds the DNC set for the third debate — 2 percent in at least four qualifying polls — to limit participation.

Nonetheless, the very existence of a climate-centered forum signals that Inslee’s campaign was at least somewhat successful. Yes, the DNC refused to focus one of the primary debates entirely on climate change, but there has still been a broader push among Democrats to address the issue head-on. For instance, most of the Democratic presidential field has either co-sponsored or endorsed the “Green New Deal,” a sweeping resolution that House Democrats introduced earlier this year that demands the government tackle climate change with ambitious actions like net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, all the candidates want to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, and nearly all want the U.S. to strengthen its commitment to lowering emissions. And it’s not just the candidates — Democratic voters say climate change is a top issue for them and one they want to hear about in the debates. But in the end, focusing on climate change wasn’t enough for Inslee to break out.

Now Inslee will return home to focus on his reelection bid. Washington doesn’t have term limits for governors, and if Inslee does win next November, he will be only the second governor in Washington’s history to win three consecutive terms in office (Republican Dan Evans is the only governor to have done this before, serving from 1965 to 1977). And as things currently stand, Inslee has a good chance of pulling it off.

First of all, Inslee is relatively popular at home — according to Morning Consult’s quarterly job approval ratings for governors, 47 percent approved of his job performance compared to 35 percent who disapproved, giving him a net approval rating (approval rating minus disapproval rating) of +12. Inslee also isn’t expected to face a notable primary challenger, although several potential candidates on the Democratic side had been waiting to see what Inslee would do. This is important because even if the GOP fields a strong nominee, the Democratic nominee for governor will likely be favored, as Washington is 12 points more Democratic-leaning than the country as a whole1 and last elected a Republican as governor in 1980. Plus, with the gubernatorial election coinciding with the presidential contest, it will be challenging for the Republican nominee to win with President Trump at the top of the ballot, as he’s pretty unpopular in Washington state and lost there by nearly 16 percentage points in 2016.

Inslee may be out of the running for president, but winning his party’s nomination was always going to be tough. But he can take comfort in the fact that he did elevate the issue of climate change in the Democratic primary race. Plus, it must feel nice to have a good chance of being governor for four more years.


  1. FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric is the average difference between how a state votes and how the country votes overall, with 2016 presidential election results weighted at 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results weighted at 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature weighted at 25 percent. Note that FiveThirtyEight’s current partisan leans were calculated before the 2018 elections and so do not incorporate the midterm results.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.