Climate change becomes top 2020 campaign issue in Iowa after devastating floods

Polling shows climate change is a top concern for democratic voters in Iowa.

A home sits in flood water on March 20, 2019 in Hamburg, Iowa. Although flood water in the town has started to recede many homes and businesses remain surrounded by water. (Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
A home sits in flood water on March 20, 2019 in Hamburg, Iowa. Although flood water in the town has started to recede many homes and businesses remain surrounded by water. (Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

More than ever before, climate change is a leading U.S. presidential election issue, and not just in liberal cities along the coasts. As the Midwest continues to recover from historic flooding, voters in the region are expressing elevated concern about climate change and its impacts, a shift that’s been picked up on by initial polling and a few 2020 candidates.

With several months to go before the first votes are cast, it’s already coming to a head in Iowa.

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), whose presidential campaign is centered on climate change, toured the waterlogged town of Hamburg, Iowa. There, he criticized President Donald’s Trump’s repeated climate science denial and its impact on those affected by climate change.

“He has diminished the ability of the federal government to protect its citizens, and that’s an outrage,” Inslee said.


Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have also visited the flood-affected region. After releasing a sweeping infrastructure policy proposal, Klobuchar said she hopes it will help tackle what’s expected to be a record flooding year following heavy snowfall this winter.

But in a crowded field of Democratic presidential contenders, Iowa’s flooding has so far failed to garner more than brief condolences from the other candidates. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) both chose instead to focus much of their comments on mocking Trump’s recent lies about wind power during their recent visits to Iowa.

Polling shows that if Democrats want to win over Iowa voters, they’ll likely have to start talking about their plan to address climate change; this includes solutions, like accelerating clean energy deployment, as well as policies to prepare for impacts like more intense flooding.

According to a CNN/Des Moines Register poll conducted by Selzer and Company in March, climate change is among the top two issues that matter most to Democratic voters in Iowa; 80% of Democrats polled said they want presidential candidates to dedicate time to speaking about climate change. The only issue that polled higher was health care.

Youth political engagement is also on the rise. Millennials are quickly taking over Baby Boomers as the largest demographic in the United States. Meanwhile, Generation Z — which comprises those aged 18 to 23 — is expected to make up one in 10 eligible voters during the 2020 election, according to the Pew Research Center. And as multiple polls have shown, climate change is a top concern for young people across the country, regardless of party affiliation.


So, climate change likely won’t stray far from people’s minds as campaign season ramps up, especially for those recovering from its impacts.

This spring’s historic flooding is an example of the type of disaster scientists predict will occur more frequently as climate change intensifies. The government’s own National Climate Assessment, for instance, emphasizes that increased flooding in the Midwest is one of the expected impacts of a warming world.

Devastating floods are expected to inflict at least $3 billion in damages to American homes and farms. In Iowa alone, the cost of repairing damages to homes is expected to reach over $480 million as at least 1,200 residences have been destroyed or seriously damaged. Businesses will take a $300 million hit and agricultural damage in the state is expected to total $214 million.

And this is likely only the beginning, as unprecedented flooding is expected to continue into the spring across the United States, according to a forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), putting millions of Americans at risk of serious inundation.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that this is all taking place in the same state that’s home to one of the most decisive presidential primary caucuses. In February 2020, Iowa voters will be the first in the country to have the chance to say who they want as their president; a strong showing in Iowa traditionally sets a candidate up for a successful bid to the presidency.

But this doesn’t mean there won’t be hurdles along the way to winning over local voters on climate change. Last week, Vice President Mike Pence, who has also visited areas hit by the flooding, blasted some Democratic 2020 contenders for their failure to vote on a disaster aid package that included relief for Iowa. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Klobuchar were all singled out by Pence for their votes against the Republican proposal.


The Senate is currently locked in a stalemate over the bill, which would allocate funding for recovery efforts in the Midwest, along with the Southeast and Puerto Rico. Democrats argue that the legislation, crafted by Republicans, does not provide enough assistance to Puerto Rico, which is still reeling from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, also criticized Sanders ahead of his recent trip to the state. “It’s no coincidence that Sen. Bernie Sanders is avoiding western Iowa during his campaign stops this weekend,” Kaufmann said. “Sanders was one of several Democratic U.S. senators running for president that voted to block disaster relief funding for Iowa flood victims.”

It’s not just the Democratic caucus in Iowa that will shape the field of presidential contenders. Eventually, whoever runs against Trump will need to gain support from many Midwestern voters — a traditionally conservative region.

And as the CNN/Des Moines Register poll shows, 44% of Iowa Republicans say they believe climate change is a minor threat, while 14% say it’s a major threat. At the same time, 35% said climate change poses no threat at all.

“Many of the most severely flooded counties, including the two that Klobuchar and Inslee visited, voted Republican in the last presidential election and may not be home to many Democratic caucusgoers compared to more urban regions such as Des Moines and Sioux Falls,” the AP noted recently.

It seems the unprecedented flooding is starting to shift some people’s opinions, however. Farmers in Nebraska, for instance, understand things are changing and want to find solutions to adapt. That doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be screaming “climate change is real” from the rooftops. As the Christian Science Monitor recently reported, the term remains incredibly politicized in the region.

So, while the first test of whether climate change, and the government’s response to the flooding, will be in swaying Democratic voters in Iowa, convincing longtime Republicans to vote for a Democrat over climate change is an entirely different challenge.