Clean Water ELPC Focus Groups in IA, IL & MI: Ann Selzer’s Report on Clean Water, Clean Energy and Climate Change – Trump Voters – Swingable Suburban/Exurban

Colleagues:  The Environmental Law & Policy Center retained expert researcher Ann Selzer to conduct 12 focus groups of potentially swingable voters in suburban/exurban areas of Illinois, Iowa and Michigan to address clean water, clean energy, and climate change issues. These focus group participants all voted for President Trump in 2016, but do not commit to voting for him again in 2020. 

These voters are 4s-8s on a 1-10 environmental – climate change issues scale.  The topic of the focus groups was how best to reach and engage these people on clean water, clean energy transition and climate change issues.  This new research builds upon the focus group research that Ann Selzer conducted for ELPC in 2017. 

The results are in, and ELPC has learned a lot to share with you.  Please see full report attached andhere.  


·      These voters have a lot that they like about Trump – tax cuts, standing up to the international community, the wall.  None of this has anything to do with environmental issues.  Every group talked about their dislike of his unprofessionalism and use of twitter.

·      Their initial stance is one of resistance giving right-wing talking points, however, when they get into a thoughtful discussion about environmental and clean energy issues – replete with charts, graphs and data points – many eyes and ears are opened.

·      We sense pent-up goodwill.  These voters are not just accepting of ideas that would improve environmental conditions while also addressing jobs and the economy, clean water and air, and renewable energy—many see such efforts as very important as they think about the candidates they will support in the next election.  Here are key results from the exit questionnaire tallies:

  • Ensuring clean water was rated very important or the single most important issue by 95 of the 107 participants. 
  • Protecting the environment came in second with 92. 
  • Job creation (87) ranked third.
  • Developing wind and solar energy was lower at 61. 
  • 45 of the 107 said climate change is very important or the single most important issue for them. 
  • 77 out of the 107 say they are inclined to think climate change is happening and caused by human behavior, though they divide between those who think something could be done (40.5) and those who think steps should be taken (36.5).

·      Clean water is a top priority, so use it to start conversations on the environment.  Connect the dots so voters see how threats to their drinking water supply are related to other environmental hazards and to climate change.  Participants are protective of their water sources, whether that be the Great Lakes in Illinois and Michigan or the Raccoon River in West Des Moines.

·      Focus on events and effects people are experiencing.  Local is better.  Extreme weather events are the stuff of everyday conversations, so they make an excellent place to open a conversation about how the frequency is increasing, what that portends for the future, and what could be done to alter what seems like a phenomenon beyond all human control.  With recent floods in the Midwest, opportunities to link weather to climate change are plentiful.

·      People are looking for “problem-solvers,” not just problems.

·      The majority of the groups believed that something was happening with the climate, even if there is debate on the cause. When they connect to local weather events, flooding, other local troubles with water, soil, and air, and local progress on renewable energy, many take to heart that things are not at a standstill.

·      Make the case that doing nothing costs a lot.  Articulating that combatting climate change is in their economic self-interest aligns with their political sensibility. 

·      Find and tell success stories to give people a sense that humans are already having an impact in changing things that seem beyond human control.  The hole in the ozone layer is one example participants could point to where making a change in their lives (reducing aerosol emissions) helped change course.  Seeing the clean energy supply chains already in place in their home states was a wow moment in most groups.  Participants are energized by the realization that things are already happening that are making a difference.  That gives them hope.

·      Play up declining costs of solar technology and advances in getting projects up and running.  Participants are energized to see data that says the transition to clean energy is already underway.  Many see investing in renewable energy as a no-brainer.  They see no downside: “It’s a win, win, win.” 

·      Cite the most trustworthy sources to bolster credibility.  Of course, there is no perfect source, and messengers are only as good as their messages.  That said, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service scores the highest of any of a list of trusted messengers tested in all 12 groups (a mean of 7.50 on a 1-10 scale).  Good ratings also went to Midwest university scientists, farmers, the Farm Bureau, Midwest-based environmental organizations, and Midwest-based clean energy advocacy organizations.  Tested only in suburban Chicago, TV weatherman Tom Skilling nailed a 7.39.

·      Remember that winning the climate change argument is not always necessary to win support for taking action.  The best tested message summarized a point columnist Thomas Friedman has said.  The tested message read: “Taking action now is a win regardless. Even if climate change isn’t as bad as we expect, building a green energy economy will only make us more resilient and independent as well as improve our air and water quality.”  In past work for ELPC, a key finding has been that much can be accomplished without referencing the need to address climate change.  There are good reasons to support renewable energy, clean water and clean air initiatives—vast numbers of environmental goals—without requiring them because of climate change.

The goal of this ELPC communications research program is to:  (1) Better understand how environmental issues – especially safe, clean drinking water – and environmental regulations resonate best with these voters and how to most persuasively communicate them; and (2) Assess the degree of interest in and support for clean energy development and a transition to clean energy economy as a focal point, with a related aim of discovering linkages to support for policies that address climate change.  ELPC will be working to communicate reasons to support these goals to people in these states, and we need to craft messages with trusted messengers to effectively make the case most persuasively. 

There is much more in Ann’s thorough analysis and we welcome you to read the report, share with your colleagues, us it in your work if helpful, and give us any feedback.

Thank you for your interest, and ELPC looks forward to sharing what we have learned with you and other colleagues.

Best wishes, Howard

Howard A. Learner

Executive Director

Environmental Law & Policy Center

35 East Wacker Drive, Suite 1600

Chicago, Illinois 60601

(312) 673-6500

Please visit ELPC’s website at

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