In this episode, I interview Nathaniel Stinnett, the Founder and Executive Director of the Environmental Voter Project. Nathaniel Stinnett founded the Environmental Voter Project in 2015 after over a decade of experience as a senior advisor, consultant, and trainer for political campaigns and issue-advocacy nonprofits. Hailed as a "visionary" by The New York Times, and dubbed "The Voting Guru" by Grist magazine, Stinnett is a frequent expert speaker on cutting-edge campaign techniques and the behavioral science behind getting people to vote. In this episode, we discuss: - Nathaniels background in law and politics which led to him founding the Environmental Voter Project - What the Environmental Voter Project is and what kind of work they are doing - Insights into voter behavior and how it factors into climate policy - How voting records and your voting file factors into climate policy regardless of which candidate you support - The results and progress Nathaniel and his team at the Environmental Voter Project have made to date along with their future plans - Ways people can get involved with EVP and Nathaniel’s advice to those looking to join the climate fight You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 and email at firstname.lastname@example.org, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and provide suggestions for future guests or topics you'd like to see covered on the show.
In this episode, I interview Nathaniel Stinnett, the Founder and Executive Director of the Environmental Voter Project.
Nathaniel Stinnett founded the Environmental Voter Project in 2015 after over a decade of experience as a senior advisor, consultant, and trainer for political campaigns and issue-advocacy nonprofits. Hailed as a "visionary" by The New York Times, and dubbed "The Voting Guru" by Grist magazine, Stinnett is a frequent expert speaker on cutting-edge campaign techniques and the behavioral science behind getting people to vote.
He has held a variety of senior leadership and campaign manager positions on U.S. Senate, Congressional, state, and mayoral campaigns, and he sits on the Board of Advisors for MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative.
Formerly an attorney at the international law firm DLA Piper LLP, Stinnett holds a B.A. from Yale University and a J.D. from Boston College Law School. He lives in Boston, MA with his wife and two daughters.
In this episode, we discuss:
I hope you enjoy the show!
You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 and email at email@example.com, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and provide suggestions for future guests or topics you'd like to see covered on the show.
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Jason Jacobs: Hello, everyone. This is Jason Jacobs and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and try to figure out how people like you and I can help.
Jason Jacobs: Hello, everyone. Jason here. Today's guest is Nathaniel Stinnett, the founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project. The Environmental Voter Project is a non-profit that has identified a pool of over 10 million here in the U.S., eligible to vote, who have climate as their number one or number two issue that don't vote. So their reason for being is to get more of those people out to the polls.
Jason Jacobs: In this episode, we cover a number of topics, including Nathaniel's background and experience in law, working in political campaigns, and, ultimately, in founding the Environmental Voter Project. We dug deep into the Environmental Voter Project and how it works, how it started, the work that they do, where they are in the trajectory, and where they're going next. We also talked about the importance of voting, both for the obvious benefits of helping select the candidate for office that aligns with your values and ideals, but also the not so obvious benefit of showing up in the demographics as an active voter who cares about X policies, which then influences where politicians spend their time. I found Nathaniel to be quite an energetic guest, as well as a thoughtful one and I learned a lot from this episode. I hope that you do as well. So, without further ado, here's Nathaniel. Nathaniel Stinnett, welcome to the show.
Nathaniel S.: Thank you for having me, Jason. I'm psyched to be here.
Jason Jacobs: Psyched to have you. I think this is a different kind of episode from the ones we've had prior. I know when you and I met a few months ago, or maybe it was a couple months ago, I was surprised that something like the Environmental Voter Project existed and was really interested in the model, so hopefully our listeners will have the same reaction that I did.
Nathaniel S.: Thank you. I hope they do too. I think we're doing some unique and impactful work. Let's hope they're as excited about it as you are.
Jason Jacobs: What is Environmental Voter Project? Maybe we'll start there.
Nathaniel S.: Awesome. So, we are a nonpartisan, nonprofit that really just does two things. We identify environmentalists who aren't voting and then we try to turn them into more consistent voters. The reason we do that is, believe it or not, environmentalists are pretty crappy voters. We have identified over 10 million already registered to vote environmentalists who didn't vote in the 2016 presidential election. Over 10 million of them. They're already registered and they deeply care about environmental issues, but they stayed home on election day. So what we do with the Environmental Voter Project is we don't endorse candidates. We don't try to persuade people to care more about the environment. We don't try to lobby for particular policies. We're really just in the behavior-changing business, not the mind-changing business. We go after these people who are already with us but they're not voting, and we turn them into better voters.
Jason Jacobs: How many millions did you say?
Nathaniel S.: 10.1 million.
Jason Jacobs: Uh-huh, and how do you know this?
Nathaniel S.: So, the first important thing to understand, this is important to understand not just for getting a better idea of who we are at the Environmental Voter Project, but this is probably one of the most important things to understand, just if you care about policy making and politics and that is, whether you vote or not is public record. It's public record. Who you vote for is secret. No one can ever find out who you vote for, but whether you vote or not is public record. Not only is it public record, but it's the lifeblood of all policy making and all political campaigns, because surprise surprise, politicians don't care about what non-voters think. They only care about what voters think. So they look at public voter files, figure out who votes regularly, and only pay attention to those voters.
Nathaniel S.: Now, to get more to the gist of the question that you asked, how do we find the environmentalists who aren't voting? Well, that's a little bit more complicated than just looking at public voter files. What we do is we survey tens of thousands of people per state, simply asking them what issues they care about most. Then we isolate the ones who say they really, deeply care about environmental issues and we use that information and other data we have about them to build predictive models. So we work with a lot of data scientists. We end up assigning a score to every single person in a state, telling us how likely they are to list climate and other environmental issues as one of their top two priorities. That's a pretty long and convoluted process, but I think the best way to think about it is it's very similar to what insurance companies do. If you apply for life insurance, first thing they do is they say, "Okay, well, how much do you exercise? What do you eat? How much do you drink? How much do you smoke? Do you like to jump out of airplanes?" They find out all this information about you and then they build a profile for you that lets them know, not to be morbid, but let's them know how long you're going to live. If they're wrong, even by a little bit, they lose billions of dollars. Billions of dollars.
Nathaniel S.: Well, we do the same thing and we try to collect all this data and figure out who cares deeply about environmental issues and we also build a profile of every single person on the state voter file that tells us how likely they are to deeply care about climate change and then we only look at the ones who aren't voting. We only care about the ones who aren't voting. That's how we identify our targets at the Environmental Voter Project, but it's also how we're able to come up with numbers like this and say, "Oh, wow, look. There are 10.1 million people in the United States who are already registered to vote who care so deeply about the environment that it's one of their top two priorities and they didn't even show up during the presidential election." Almost 16 million of them didn't vote in the 2014 midterms. We don't have the full dataset from 2018 yet. There's a few states who are still updating their voter files, but Jason, we're talking about huge numbers of people here, people who don't need their minds changed about anything. They're already with us. These are dyed in the wool super environmentalists. You shake them awake at night and they scream, "Climate change." They're just not voting.
Jason Jacobs: So how did you come across this insight?
Nathaniel S.: So for about a decade, I worked in law and politics. I went to law school here in Boston at Boston College. While I was there, I worked a little bit for the Democratic National Committee and then started working for a lot of political campaigns while I was at my law firm. I was always deeply frustrated by something that you might be aware of, and that is, when you poll voters for any election, it could be a Boston City Council race or president of the United States or governor of Texas, and you ask them what issues they care about most, climate change is almost always near the bottom. Now, that's starting to change a little bit in the democratic presidential primary and I'd love to talk about that if you're interested, but by and large, no matter what race you look at, if you poll the people who are likely to vote in that race and ask them what issues they care about, climate change is nowhere.
Jason Jacobs: Any insight historically into why that has been?
Nathaniel S.: No. I wish I had a good answer for that, because you ask a really good question. The truth is, it's really easy to measure how people feel about something. What's really hard, with any scientific rigor, is to figure out why they feel that way or why they don't care about something. Really the only thing you can do, the only thing any social scientist can do in that situation is ask them, is ask people, "Why don't you care about this?" Or "Why do you care about this?" You know what happens? They lie their pants off.
Jason Jacobs: To you or to themselves?
Nathaniel S.: That's a good question. We don't know, but what we do know is that they will often-
Jason Jacobs: We just started this podcast and I've asked two good questions, according to the [crosstalk 00:08:25].
Nathaniel S.: That's right. That's awesome.
Jason Jacobs: I like to be [strooked 00:08:28], so this is good. When people say, "Good question," it just butters me right up.
Nathaniel S.: Well, there you go. There you go. That will be my automatic response now. It's very important to be able to tell the difference between excuses that people give and actual causes for how they act. What we know is, when you poll people and ask them why you don't vote, "Why don't you vote?" Or "Why do you care about this and why do you not care about that?" They overwhelmingly adhere to what they think the important societal norm is. So, that was really academic jargon, so let me put it in a different way. How they will often answer is the way that they think that you want them to answer. So if you ask me, for instance, "Why don't you care about climate change?" I am really likely to give you the answer that I think you want to hear. Or "Why don't you vote?" I will probably give you the answer that I think is most societally acceptable, like, "Oh, well, I didn't know enough about the candidates," or, "I didn't know there was an election," or, "I was really busy that day."
Nathaniel S.: What we've realized, by looking at a lot of this polling data and then a lot of resulting data on who actually votes, is that people usually lie about their reasons for not taking a particular action, so it's a really dark, deep, black box to dive into to try to figure out why people do or do not feel a certain way or why they do or do not take a particular set of actions. It's really hard, and we don't even know that at the Environmental Voter Project.
Jason Jacobs: But, I guess pausing for a minute, so before we get into everybody else, let's talk about you, because I'm curious. When you came across this insight, it sounds like it bothered you.
Nathaniel S.: Oh yeah.
Jason Jacobs: So why is that?
Nathaniel S.: So, it bothered the crap out of me because-
Jason Jacobs: Why are you different? Yeah.
Nathaniel S.: So-
Jason Jacobs: And whatever you tell me is going to be the thing that you think I want you to hear, right? So.
Nathaniel S.: It might be, or the thing I think your listeners want to hear. That's right. So, Jason, I never had a blinding light on the road to Damascus where all of a sudden I realized, like, "Oh, I deeply care about climate change." The truth is, I've always cared about environmental issues. I wish I had a compelling Genesis story for you, and I don't. I think part of it-
Jason Jacobs: I don't either, by the way. Obviously I care, and someone asked me that yesterday. I was like, "I don't know why." I didn't have any transformative moment or something.
Nathaniel S.: Yeah. If someone's about to punch you in the face, you move out of the way and I feel like the universe is about to punch us in the face and I want to move out of the way and solve this problem. I think part of my reaction to the climate crisis isn't through some emotional or childhood love of the environment. I think I just, at some point, slowly came to realize, "Holy moly, this is everything."
Jason Jacobs: So, I guess if we look backwards, you were running political campaigns.
Nathaniel S.: Yep.
Jason Jacobs: Right? And then was your awakening to climate change just slowly building during that time?
Nathaniel S.: It was even around, starting about 10 or 15 years ago. Even when I was in law school, I deeply, deeply cared about environmental issues, but the truth is, Jason, I never felt like there was a solution to this political problem that I just posed to you. I was running these campaigns, I deeply cared about climate change, but I saw how few voters cared about climate change and I didn't think there was a solution to the problem. I thought, "You know what? Talking about these issues is not how you win campaigns," and so it would be malpractice for me to advise my clients or the candidates I was working with to talk about this issue that voters don't give a heck about. So we didn't talk about it. Then sometimes those candidates would win.
Jason Jacobs: I checked the explicit box on this podcast, by the way-
Nathaniel S.: So I can-
Jason Jacobs: So if you ever do feel inclined, you can say whatever you want.
Nathaniel S.: That's good to know.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah.
Nathaniel S.: That's good to know. That's probably the first time I've said heck in like two years, so it's good. Sounded weird coming off the lips. And then, even when politicians win elections, right? Even when the so-called right people win, then they have a very limited amount of political capital to spend. What was I going to do then? Let's say I just got you elected governor of Massachusetts. Is it good for me to say, "Hey, Jason, let's spend all of your political capital on this thing that we know voters really don't care about. That's a really hard thing to do, so I was deeply frustrated by this.
Jason Jacobs: Were you working at the time with candidates who cared about this issue?
Nathaniel S.: Yeah, I was, because I was in this great position, working at a law firm where I could, during my free time, be either a senior strategist or a campaign manager. So I wasn't working for money. This was in my free time, so I could pick and choose the candidates I wanted and I always picked the ones who I thought would be amazing on environmental issues and would deeply care about this stuff, but when you're trying to win an election, your goal is not the long-term health of the environmental movement. Your goal is to get 50% plus one of the market share on a Tuesday in November, period. You got to win. You got to win if you want to do anything. The problem is, you're in this weird catch-22 where, in order to win, you have to talk about stuff that voters care about. Then as soon as you win, you're worried about the next election and so you can't spend your precious political capital on something the voters don't care about. I was just in this never-ending cycle of frustration that I really cared about climate change. I saw how important it was to have political leadership on this issue, but we couldn't break out of this lockstep.
Nathaniel S.: As I mentioned before, whether you vote or not is public record, so in any given moment, on any of our campaigns, we knew who was likely to vote and who wasn't likely to vote and we knew that those likely voters didn't care about this important issue.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, so you're in this cycle and you feel trapped and you're getting more and more frustrated, so what did you do?
Nathaniel S.: Well, I had just finished running a mayoral campaign here in Boston, was taking some time off before what I assumed would be going back to working at my law firm. I was taking time off because our first child was being born.
Jason Jacobs: When was this?
Nathaniel S.: This was the very end of 2013, beginning of 2014.
Jason Jacobs: Okay.
Nathaniel S.: Purely by chance, I saw some polling data that totally blew my mind. This was some polling data that was looking at voters' policy preferences going into the 2014 midterm elections. What this interesting set of polling data showed was, it broke down the issues that people care about into two groups. The first was how do all American adults feel about this long list of political issues? Then the second group was how do people who are likely to vote in the 2014 midterms care about these issues? I saw that there was a pretty significant difference. When you looked at the people who were actually likely to vote in the 2014 midterm elections, climate change was ... I don't think it was at the bottom, but I think it was 18th out of 19 on their priorities of issues. It was almost the least important issue to people who were going to vote in that election. But then when you looked at all American adults ... It isn't like climate change was at the top. It was nowhere near the top, but it was closer to the middle and I thought, "Huh. I wonder if the environmental movement doesn't have a persuasion problem as much as we have a turnout problem."
Nathaniel S.: I started looking at more and more polls and there aren't many of them that break out populations like that, where they separate a measurement of how voters feel, as opposed to all American adults, but I kept on looking at more and more polling data and more predictive modeling data and other opinion data and I kept on seeing similar results. The more I looked at this, the more I began to think, "Well, this is really interesting," because even before Trump, we lived in a time when it was really hard to change people's opinions. It's really hard to change people's minds. It's easier to change their behavior. I will never claim it's easy. It is not easy to change people's behavior, but it's easier and it's cheaper.
Nathaniel S.: As I started looking at this data, I started to realize, "Wow, if we don't have an opinion changing problem, if we don't have a mind changing problem, but rather just a behavioral problem, a turnout problem, well, that's solvable. That's a really efficient solution to a lot of the political problems that the climate movement is dealing with." I won't claim like it was an easy decision for me to make to start my own non-profit. It wasn't. I am the world's most reluctant entrepreneur. I never dreamt of starting my own thing, but through my time working in campaigns, I had some of the data analytics expertise and some of the behavioral science expertise, and certainly some of the political campaign expertise that made me realize I had recognized a unique solution to an important problem and I had the skill set to bring that solution to fruition.
Nathaniel S.: So, it didn't happen immediately. It took about a year of me meeting with tons of people, having them fact check all my data, talk to me about whether there was a place for an organization like the Environmental Voter Project. My wife was an enormous part of this decision. She really encouraged me to do this and really helped making introductions to people in the space and things like that, but eventually we ended up launching it in the very end of 2015 and we've been killing it ever since.
Jason Jacobs: We talked about the 10 million people that ... So it's 10 million that have environment as their number one cause that don't vote? Did I get that right?
Nathaniel S.: So, we identified 10.1 million who list climate change or some other environmental issue as their number one or number two priority, yet they did not vote in the 2016 presidential election.
Jason Jacobs: What percentage of people that fit that criteria do you think that 10.1 million represents?
Nathaniel S.: There are 20.1 million registered voters who list climate or the environment as one of their top two priorities.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. So about 50% of them vote.
Nathaniel S.: 50% of them vote in presidential elections. Obviously, every election is different, so presidential elections are like the high water mark of voter turnout. If you look at midterms, midterm elections, far fewer of them vote. If you look at local elections, almost none of them vote. We shouldn't poo-poo local elections. Mayors can save the planet with tweaks to zoning codes and building codes and parking regulations and traffic laws. So, whatever election we look at, whether it be presidential or midterm or local races, we see that environmentalists lag overall turnout. We are worse voters than the overall population and we're looking to change that.
Jason Jacobs: So if there's, what, 300 million people in the United States? A little more?
Nathaniel S.: Yeah, a little bit more than that. Yep.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, and so we're talking about, I guess, a total addressable market of 10.1 million out of that 300 million. 10 million is a big number, but out of a percentage, it's a small number. So, why does it matter?
Nathaniel S.: It matters because the denominator is not what you think it is. The denominator isn't 300 million plus. We've got about 255 million people in the United States who are of voting age. 255 million, but, as you may know, just because you are of age doesn't mean you're allowed to vote. Many states don't let anybody who's ever been convicted of a felony ever vote, even if they want to. So we have about 235 million who are eligible to vote. We have about 208 million-
Jason Jacobs: That's a lot of felony convictions.
Nathaniel S.: It is. It is. That's an issue for another podcast, but there's a reason for that. We have about 208 million who are registered to vote. Do all registered voters show up for every election? No way. We had 139 million, I think, 138 million show up for the 2016 presidential election. 138 million. What is 10 million out of 138 million? Well, that's a big effing deal now. For the midterm elections, it was 114 million people voted. Last November's midterm elections were the highest turnout midterms since 1914, right after World War I broke out. So when we look at these numbers, 114 million people voting in the highest midterm election in modern American history, well, that's a much smaller denominator than 300 million Americans.
Nathaniel S.: If you can add even one million, 1.5 million environmentalists to that group, you start really changing the dynamics of the marketplace because, as I said before, politicians don't care about the nonvoters, Jason. They care about the voters, and whether you vote or not is public record. It's public record. So why on earth would any politician care what issue you care about if there is a public record telling them that you never vote? Politicians only pay attention to the voters and that's why we're trying to shove as many environmentalists into that little niche marketplace as possible, because those are the only people who are first class citizens.
Jason Jacobs: So is the reason that this helps because when people vote, then it shows up in the demographic data of the people that vote? Or is the reason that this helps who the people actually vote for, that show up at the polls?
Nathaniel S.: So, a little bit of both. I am never going to claim that who wins in an election is unimportant. Obviously, it's important to elect the right people, so obviously that is part of what's going on here, but the first part of what you said is even more important, because-
Jason Jacobs: I never would have thought. I mean, finish your thought, but that's surprising to me.
Nathaniel S.: Yeah, despite the really politically polarized and partisan environment that we live in, Jason, there's still one thing that every democrat and every republican has in common and that is they want to win elections. Politicians want to win elections. Whether you're a democrat or a republican, you want to win elections. So what that means is, you go where the votes are. I know that sounds cynical, but it's just arithmetic. It's how democracies work. Either you get enough votes or you don't get to be a politician anymore. So what politicians do is they religiously look at these voter files. Whenever they're updated after an election, they see who voted and who didn't vote. Of course, they only poll the voters to see what issues they care about. That is how policy is made.
Nathaniel S.: As you and I are sitting in this room right now, my guess is there are probably 100 polls in the field all around the country. They are not polling, but these politicians ... They're not polling all Americans. They're not polling all eligible voters. They're not even polling all registered voters. They are looking at public voter files to see who bothers to show up, and they are only polling those people, which makes sense. You don't expect Starbucks to care about people who don't drink coffee, right?
Jason Jacobs: So is a political strategy not to try to speak to certain people who haven't been showing up, to get those people to turnout?
Nathaniel S.: Well, that's obviously the strategy we're taking at the Environmental Voter Project, but we have the luxury of having a longer horizon for what we're trying to accomplish. What we're trying to do at the Environmental Voter Project is over three, four years in a particular state, pretty dramatically change the way the electorate works, because in any given year, the average American has three or four, sometimes five, elections between primaries and generals and local, state, and federal, but no. I would say that's not a good strategy to take.
Jason Jacobs: So you would never counsel a candidate that you were working on behalf of to take that approach?
Nathaniel S.: No, let's say I'm running your campaign for governor, Jason. How would you feel if, on election day, I come to you and I say, "Jason, I got to admit something. I spent all of our money talking to people I'm pretty sure aren't going to show up today." You'd be pretty angry, and for very good reason, because when I'm running your campaign for governor, our goal is not the long-term health of the environmental movement or the long-term health of the democracy, to get as many people to vote as possible. We just have one goal and that's getting 50% plus one of the market share on a Tuesday in November, period. Your goal is to win.
Nathaniel S.: So what that means is, the most efficient way to reach that point ... most efficient way to get one more vote than all of your opponents is almost always to talk to the people who have a history of showing up on election day. It's not the most efficient play over the long term or the medium term, but you don't care about the long-term.
Jason Jacobs: So you can take that view in the long term because you're not focused election to election.
Nathaniel S.: That's right. We are not in the election winning business. We're in the electorate changing business.
Jason Jacobs: Can you talk a little bit about techniques? How do you actually get these people to turn out?
Nathaniel S.: Yeah, so here's the really interesting thing. Once you're confident in the accuracy of your identification techniques, and we're very confident that our predictive models are really, really accurate, and it's not because we're particularly good or bad at this, it's just where the technology is. The various companies, both in the political and nonprofit sector, but also in the private sector, who are building predictive models, are really accurate.
Jason Jacobs: Is it the same predictive models that you would use and the candidates that are focused election to election use?
Nathaniel S.: Yes. Now, they build predictive models to identify different kinds of people. So if I were running your campaign, I would build a predictive model helping us identify people who are likely to support you, not people who are likely to list climate change as one of their top priorities.
Jason Jacobs: Is it the same vendors that are providing these?
Nathaniel S.: Yes, similar vendors.
Jason Jacobs: Got it.
Nathaniel S.: Similar vendors and absolutely similar techniques.
Jason Jacobs: Who are some of the leading ones, just in case any listeners out there want to learn more about the technology?
Nathaniel S.: So we use Clarity Campaign Labs. They are a great, national vendor that works with a lot of progressive and nonprofits and organizations, but Blue Labs is another one that's very, very good, but there are about four or five very prominent predictive modeling shops out there.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, so you get the predictive models and they help you identify who to go after. Then how do you go after them?
Nathaniel S.: Yeah, so this is the really special part, because if you're confident in the accuracy of your identification, well then you have the luxury to be completely agnostic in your messaging. I could talk about chocolate chip cookies if it was the best way to get you to vote, because we already know that you're a super environmentalist. So what we have found, and not just us, but other people who work with behavioral science, have found that the best way to get people to take a particular action, whether it be exercising more often or vaccinating their children or starting to vote, is not to try to rationally convince them of the value of the action, but rather it's to appeal to things like peer pressure and social pressure and essentially try to figure out what societal norms they buy into and take advantage of that? So I'll give you some examples.
Jason Jacobs: I was just going to ask. You read my mind.
Nathaniel S.: There you go. You missed an opportunity for me to say, "That's another good question, Jason." Sorry about that. So, an example is, we will send text messages to people and we'll say, "Hey, Jason, did you know last time there was an election, 73% on your block of Main Street turned out to vote?" Or we'll send them a letter that includes a copy of their personal voting history. We'll say ... and yeah, it's a little ... We turn the screws. We'll say, "Jason, just want to remind you who you vote for is secret, but whether you vote or not is public record. Here's a copy of your-"
Jason Jacobs: Shame. I like it.
Nathaniel S.: We shame them. Yes, but what we have found out is that even people who don't vote, by and large, they buy into the societal norm that voting is a good thing. So even if you just hint at the idea that whether you vote or not is public record, even if you hint at the idea that one of their neighbors might be able to look up their public voting record, it sends turnout through the roof.
Jason Jacobs: Random question, but the half of the people that list environment as one or two that don't show up, is that ratio pretty consistent across issues or are environmental voters particularly bad at turning out?
Nathaniel S.: I know the answer to the second part of the question, but not the first. So yes, I do know that environmental voters are particularly bad at voting, because when we compare turnout of environmentalists to the average turnout of registered voters, we are well below average. Now, how does that compare to other issue constituency groups? I don't know, because I care about climate and environment issues and we haven't put the money in to researching how other issue constituency groups turnout, but what I do know is that we're way below average and that's a really, really important thing to solve because of what we were talking about earlier. Politicians go where the votes are. You get more environmentalists to vote, politicians will follow. They will follow.
Jason Jacobs: But there's no insight into why that is?
Nathaniel S.: No, and it's not for lack of trying. We have done studies where we've tried to determine why environmentalists aren't voting, but every time we do one of these studies, the data we get back really is either confusing or doesn't lead to obvious answers. So I'll give you some examples. We did a survey, and this wasn't a huge, huge survey, so we didn't publish it because it wasn't ... It only had about 600 or 700 people in it, but it did give some really interesting feedback to us. We had a survey where half the population were environmentalists who never voted. They'd been registered for at least five years, but never voted once. The other half were environmentalists who had literally never skipped an election. These people vote in library trustee elections. What we did was we asked both groups of people the same questions about civic engagement and we learned two really interesting things.
Nathaniel S.: The first one was both groups answered every question the exact same way. So, we asked the nonvoters, "Do you think that politicians care about the issues you care about?" They said, "No, they don't care." We asked the people who always vote and they say, "No, they don't care." We asked the people who always vote, "Do you think it's important to vote in every election?" They said, "Oh yeah, it's really important to vote in every election." We asked the nonvoters and they said, "Oh yeah, it's really important to vote in every election." We asked the nonvoters, "Do you think your vote even makes a difference?" They said, "No, it doesn't make a difference." We asked the super voters, and they said, "No, our vote doesn't make a difference." So we kept on getting this data back that told us we know the excuses that people give for not voting, but good voters feel the same way. So how can we draw a causal connection?
Nathaniel S.: I can tell you what nonvoters say are their reasons for not voting, Jason. I can tell you what they are. It's, "Oh, I'm too busy," or, "Politicians don't care about the issues I care about," or, "My vote doesn't make a difference." The problem is, good voters feel the same way, so how can we say that there's any causal connection there?
Jason Jacobs: So you have interesting insight, but not conclusive at this point?
Nathaniel S.: That's right, but here's the second thing we learned. This is something that we do have conclusive data on, because once we saw this in that survey, we then beefed it up and did a survey of 10,000 people with real statistical significance across the board. We asked one more question in that survey, where we asked an open-ended question. We didn't give people options to choose from. We said, "When you don't vote, what are your reasons for not voting?" Some people said this, some people said that, some people said another thing, but the overwhelming majority of them, something like 78% said, "Oh, I always vote." Now Jason, as a reminder, whether you vote or not is public record. We knew for a fact, while we were surveying these people, they had never voted before in their entire lives. They were lying their pants off to us.
Nathaniel S.: We thought we might lie their pants off to us, so we actually had a backup question for these nonvoters who said, "I vote all the time." We said, "Okay, maybe you vote sometime, but when you don't vote, what are your reasons for not voting?" We were really trying to figure out why aren't these people voting? A smaller majority, but still a majority, still 52% of the respondents swore up and down they voted all the time. When we saw that data, that's when we did this really, really big survey of ... It wasn't 10,000, I think about 9,000 people, where we asked them how often they voted. We gave them lots of responses, every election, only presidentials, every two years, lots of different responses. What we realized, and this is on our website. You can see the report from the survey at environmentalvoter.org. We realized that 78% of people lie and over report how often they vote. Now, what does that tell us?
Jason Jacobs: Environmentalists, so they have an outside propensity to lie, as they say.
Nathaniel S.: No, this survey wasn't just environmentalists. It was everybody, but you're right. Environmentalists do lie too. What does this tell us? It does not tell us why environmentalists aren't voting, but what it does tell us ... It does give us insight into how to get people to vote. This gets back to what I was telling you before about this societal norm that even nonvoters want to be viewed as good voters. What we've realized is that voters, whether they be environmentalists or not, will lie their pants off even to a stranger over the phone and swear up and down that they vote all the time. Why? Because they still buy into that societal norm that being a voter is a good thing. They buy into it so much that they even want strangers to think they're a good voter.
Jason Jacobs: So it's just reminding them that they care about that and that's what motivates them to get out there?
Nathaniel S.: Not just reminding them that they care about that, but using a little bit of social pressure, literally pushing in their face the fact that we have a copy of their personal voting history and, by the way, pal, it's public record and we might follow up with you after the election to find out how everything went.
Jason Jacobs: So how long have you been out in the field doing this stuff? What kinds of results have you found so far with your efforts?
Nathaniel S.: So, we launched at the end of 2015, so we've been doing this for a little bit more than three years, about three and a half years. We ran a yearlong pilot program in Massachusetts, and off the strength of our results there, we expanded into five more states. So we're currently in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. The results that we get, it varies from election to election because it's harder to turn people out in high turnout races, like presidential election, and it's easier to turn them out in local races, but I'll give you an example from last year's midterms because midterm elections are kind of like a midwater mark of turnout.
Nathaniel S.: We targeted 2.2 million unlikely to vote environmentalists. We increased turnout among that 2.2 million by 2.7 percentage points. What that means is, in our randomized control trials, we're able to prove that we were solely responsible for adding 59,000 brand new environmental voters to the electorate last fall in just six states. If you don't think 2.7 percentage points is a big deal, talk to Hilary Clinton. Those numbers are everything in this game. They are everything.
Nathaniel S.: I'm not going to claim that we are a magic, election-winning organization. We're not. Talking to crappy voters is not an efficient way to win one election, but if you start having one, two, three percentage point jumps, election after election, four, five, six times a year, man, after three or four years in one of these states, we can pretty dramatically change what the electorate looks like. When you do that, I don't care if you're running for president or governor or dogcatcher, when you put a poll in the field asking likely voters what issues they care about, climate change is going to start appearing at the top, not at the bottom. When that happens, politicians will trip over themselves to lead on these issues, because politicians want to win elections. That's it. At the very heart of it, we're ultimately a pretty cynical organization. All our theory of change relies upon is politicians wanting to win. As long as politicians want to win election, then we're going to get them to lead on climate change by making more climate voters. So that's our theory of change. It's like if you drive 5,000 coffee drinkers to the door of Starbucks. Believe me, they'll make more coffee. They will absolutely make more coffee.
Jason Jacobs: How did you pick the states that you started in?
Nathaniel S.: So, we need a big denominator. Our number one most important criteria is we go into states that have lots of nonvoting and seldom voting environmentalists, because 2.7% of 1,000 targets isn't going to do anything, right? There are a lot of states that actually don't have many nonvoting environmentalists. A lot of important political states. A lot of people come up to us and say, "Oh man, I really wish you were working in Minnesota," which by any objective measure is a very important state for climate policy making at the local, state, and federal level. Well, unfortunately, there aren't that many nonvoting environmentalists there. Even if we killed it, we wouldn't have an impact on policy making.
Jason Jacobs: I wonder if studying what it is about the environmentalists there than the environmentalists in nonparticipating states can give insight into how to get the other states more active.
Nathaniel S.: Well, now I get to say it again, Jason. That's a very good question. That's a very good point. We're probably going to do some research into that, comparing states that have very high voter turnout rates, so Minnesota, Maine, Colorado. These are all states where voter turnout is pretty high across the board, but what's interesting is in Colorado and Maine, environmental turnout is not that good, but in Minnesota, environmental turnout is really good. So yeah, we are trying to figure that out, but I don't want to make it seem like we are obsessed with the why not question. We're not as obsessed with the why aren't these people voting question as we are with the how can we get them to vote question, because they're not always related. Sometimes you just need to embrace the black box and just understand that we may never figure out why these people aren't voting, as long as we can figure out impactful ways to get them to vote and we are doing the latter. We definitely are doing the latter. We run ... We'll probably run over 100 randomized control trials this year just testing which messages work best with which demographic groups to get which micro populations to vote more often.
Nathaniel S.: It's not our primary purpose, but a secondary aspect of our work is we're really this full-time field laboratory for figuring out the best way to get environmentalists to take this one action, this one behavior change, and that is to vote more often.
Jason Jacobs: So is the goal of the organization to get those 10.1 million to vote?
Nathaniel S.: Yes, although I would say that I'm not operating under the delusion that we're going to be able to turn every nonvoting environmentalist into a voter. I would say the short-term goal is to get environmentalists to vote as often as everybody else. The longer-term goal is to get them to be better voters. I want environmentalists to vote as often as NRA members do. That's where a lot of the NRA's power comes from. It doesn't come from their checkbook. It comes from the fact that if you deeply care about gun rights right now, you vote like it's your job. I want climate voters to do the same thing. Then our ultimate goal, our ultimate goal is to put ourselves out of business. Our ultimate goal is to, in a particular state ... We do look at it from a state-by-state basis. In a particular state, if we get to that diminishing level of returns where we don't think we're able to efficiently make new voters and we've reached that leveling off, we'll stop working in that state.
Jason Jacobs: The putting yourself out of business thing, is that something that you take seriously or are you saying that half in jest?
Nathaniel S.: No, I really take it seriously.
Jason Jacobs: How many years, then?
Nathaniel S.: The honest answer is I don't know because we haven't done it yet. We don't know where that leveling off happens. I am confident that there will be a diminishing point of returns, probably some sort of asymptotic leveling off, where it gets increasingly expensive to convert nonvoters into voters. I'm sure it will happen, but I don't know when it will happen because we haven't reached that point yet.
Jason Jacobs: So what's next for the organization? You've run these trials in a handful of states. You've put up some good results, so where are you going next and what's your biggest priority?
Nathaniel S.: First off, we're staying in our current six states, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. I can't stress this enough. We don't just care about the big, sexy elections every two years. Every election, even if it's for a library trustee, is an opportunity to change people's behavior. So every election is a way to turn nonvoters into voters, but we're also going to be expanding into new states. I wish I could tell you what those new states are. We haven't made that decision yet, but probably in the next month or two, we will be announcing which new states we will be expanding into, but even when we expand into those states, it's not because we have an eye on the 2020 presidential election or any other election. It's because we feel that those states offer a great opportunity for us to hit people over and over again, and over the course of two, three, four, maybe five years, dramatically change the electorate in those states, such that on a local, state, and federal level, nobody can run for anything without talking about these issues.
Jason Jacobs: One point I forgot to bring up is you mentioned to me before we started recording that you are intentionally nonpartisan in your approach. So I guess that would mean then, by definition, that if there were a candidate that were much stronger on environment than other candidates, that you have no horse in the race and aren't thinking election to election. Is that correct, and can you expand upon your thinking there?
Nathaniel S.: That's exactly correct. Absolutely correct. We never support candidates, but also part of the reason why we take this approach ... Well, there are a few reasons we take this approach. One is just for legal reasons. If we want to be the type of nonprofit that we are, we can't support particular candidates.
Jason Jacobs: What type is that?
Nathaniel S.: We're a 501C4 nonprofit.
Jason Jacobs: How's that different than a C3?
Nathaniel S.: It's different in that people who donate to us can't get a tax write off. I know that's a bummer, but because of the type of work that we're doing, identifying people who care deeply about a particular issue and then mobilizing them to vote, that's considered a form of advocacy. So, because of that, we have to file as a 501C4 nonprofit.
Nathaniel S.: Now, the other reason we're nonpartisan is that we truly believe that politicians will go where the votes are. I know I've said that before, but it's so important to truly internalize and understand. I don't just mean this as, if we get enough environmentalists to vote, then republicans will start caring about climate change. No, everybody, even the most progressive democrat in the world, is falling down on the job, Jason. Can anyone with a straight face claim that any political leader, any political leader, has put forth the climate policy solutions that we need to get ourselves out of this crisis? No way, at least no one with any power. So the truth is, we have all of these people, some of whom mean very, very well, who are stuck in a marketplace with no demand for environmental leadership, none whatsoever. It's changing a little bit. It's changing, for instance, in the democratic presidential primary. So voters who are likely to vote in the democratic presidential primary are starting to demand climate leadership and so you're seeing a lot of candidates supply it, but the reason we take this nonpartisan approach is that we truly believe that left, right, or center, democratic or republican, everybody has to cobble together 50% plus one of the vote. So if you starting to get more environmentalists to vote, it will get everybody, whether they're republican or democrat to be more likely to lead on these issues.
Nathaniel S.: So it's not that we're trying to be middle of the road or that we're trying to be nonpartisan, it's that we understand that even if you're super liberal, winning an election isn't enough. I'm sorry, it's just not. Electing the right people is not enough, because then they need to decide, "Well, what am I going to spend my political capital on?" And no one's going to spend their political capital on something that voters don't care about. They're just not. They're just not. No one's going to supply a product for which there's no demand in the marketplace. We need to make that demand.
Jason Jacobs: In terms of funding, since it sounds like you're 100% funded by donors, what does that base look like? Is there a ... you seem to have a really good grasp on what the environmental voter base looks like, so do you have a similar grasp on what your donor base looks like? If so, I'd love to hear any detail.
Nathaniel S.: Yeah, so as I mentioned, we launched our pilot in 2015, 2016. Then in 2017, sort of our first full year post-pilot, we raised $470,000. Last year, in 2018, we raised 1.5 million. This year, we are raising money at about twice the speed as we did last year. I'm not going to pretend like that is going to project out to three million. What the hell do I know? This is our third year, but it's going pretty well. As far as what do those donors look like, we had 1,500 donors last year or maybe 1,600 donors. I would say I think 1,300 of them gave us less than $500. So we're not-
Jason Jacobs: Big long tail.
Nathaniel S.: Yeah. We're not Bernie Sanders. It's not like we've got a billion donors out there giving us two bucks or something like that, but we have ...
Jason Jacobs: Maybe that's your opportunity, Nathaniel.
Nathaniel S.: That's right. Maybe it is. That's a good point. So we've got, I'd say, probably 30 or 40 donors who give $10,000, $25,000, $50,000. We've got three donors who are in the six figure range, but the overwhelming majority of our donor base is people who are giving $500, $50, $1,000, $2,000, things like that. As far as what do they look like, not what I expected. Probably just because of where I came from, I had this experiential bias where I assumed, well, the people who are going to be most interested in this are going to be the people who are most interested in political campaigns. And yeah, some of them do donate to us, but oddly enough, most of our money isn't coming from the habitual political donor. It's coming from people in Silicon Valley. It's coming from the clean tech crowd in Cambridge and Kindle Square. It's coming from people who are more interested in the outside the box creative approach we're taking, rather than the people who just are looking to clink champagne on election night because a particular candidate one, which, to be honest, we don't offer. No one can click champagne on election night and say, "Hey, the Environmental Voter Project won." We are like the data nerds of the environmental movement. That is not us.
Jason Jacobs: I know you're nonpartisan by nature, but if you looked at the donor base, is it heavily skewed to one political party or another?
Nathaniel S.: Yeah. Yeah. Our donors are largely progressive, but we also have some never-Trump republicans who deeply care about environmental issues. They understand that if we do our job well, it won't just help progressives lead on climate change. It will help moderates and conservatives lead on climate change. Sheldon Whitehouse, the U.S. Senator from Rhode Island is fond of saying, and I'm not sharing any secrets. He says this every week if you ask him. He's fond of saying that there are eight republican members of the U.S. Senate who would not just vote to support a price on carbon, they would lead on it. They would lead on it if they thought that their electorate would support them.
Nathaniel S.: There are people, there are right of center leaders who will lead on climate policy if there is voter demand for it. Now, again, our purpose is not to be a middle of the road organization. Our purpose is to hold everybody's feet to the fire. Our purpose is to make it impossible for anybody to run for anything without paying attention to these issues, kind of like the NRA does in a lot of places for people on gun issues, but yeah, we do have some moderate and even right of center supporters. Not many, but we do have some.
Jason Jacobs: For anyone that wants to learn more about the Environmental Voter Project, where should they go?
Nathaniel S.: They should go to environmentalvoter.org. There are a few ways to get involved, the first and easiest of which is if you go to our website, environmentalvoter.org, you can sign our environmental voter pledge. It's the simple pledge and you just promise to vote in every election and always prioritize environmental issues. If you sign that pledge on our website, we will send you free election reminders before every single election. It doesn't matter whether you're in one of our six states or not. You could live in Boise, Idaho. You sign this pledge on environmentalvoter.org and we will let you every single time you have an election, even if it's a primary for library trustee in the middle of the summer. Second thing you can do on our website, sign up to volunteer. At any given moment, we have ... We now have, I think, 2,300 volunteers around the country who are texting, calling, and canvassing these nonvoting environmentalists for us and we would love to bring you into the fold. It's a really fun way to make a difference in your free time.
Nathaniel S.: Then the third thing is, obviously we're funded by donors, over 1,600 of them and every little bit counts. Turnout is relatively cheap. Changing minds, changing opinions, that's the hard and expensive stuff. Changing behavior, I won't claim it's cheap or easy, but it's cheaper and easier and a little bit of money goes a long way with us, so we would obviously love people's financial support as well.
Jason Jacobs: Anything I didn't ask you that I should have or any other parting words for our listeners?
Nathaniel S.: I would just say that, at a very basic level, I think most people are cynical about politics. They think politicians will do whatever it takes to get elected, and they're right. They're totally right. So take your cynicism one step further, for God's sake. If politicians will do whatever it takes to get elected, then how dare you miss any election? Not only does your vote matter, it's maybe the only thing that matters. In fact, because whether you vote or not is public record, Jason, even if you go to vote and you write your dog's name in on the ballot, it still impacts policy making because simply by being a voter, you become a first class citizen. Politicians don't care what nonvoters think and they have ... within 20 seconds of opening up their laptop, they have a list of all the nonvoters and all of the voters. So you've got to be a voter. It's one of the easiest, most impactful things anybody who cares about climate change can do. You have got to vote in every single election, because those are the people who drive policy making.
Nathaniel S.: Jason, if we woke up tomorrow and the front page of the New York Times said, "Likely voters in the upcoming presidential election list climate change as their number two priority," I would claim that we will have solved the climate crisis.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, and one thing that reminds me to just plug as a big ah-ha for me in listening to this is for the people that say, "Oh, I'm in a blue district" or "I'm in a red district" or "It's going to be such a landslide my vote doesn't matter," actually, for the secondary benefit that it sounds like is even more important than who you vote for, or as important, you should show up in every election because it makes a difference every time.
Nathaniel S.: That's exactly right. Also, climate policy solutions don't just come from the federal level. They come from the state and the local level too. Little tweaks to zoning codes, little tweaks to the amount of concrete that goes into this building that we're sitting in can have dramatic impacts on the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. So yeah, the people who you elect to your city council and your local mayor can have an enormous impact on climate policy, so yeah, every election matters. You're right. It doesn't just matter because of who you elect. It matters because by being a voter, you become a first class citizen.
Jason Jacobs: I think that's a powerful point to end on, so Nathaniel Stinnett, thank you for coming on the show. You've been a great guest.
Nathaniel S.: Well, thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.
Jason Jacobs: Hey, everyone, Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey, you can visit us at myclimatejourney.co, that is .co, not .com. Someday we'll get to .com, but right now, .co. You can also find me on Twitter at @jjacobs22, where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. Before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend of consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.