When you sit next to "The Voting Guru" Nathaniel Stinnett, you feel an excitement and energy pouring off him that's usually only encountered among Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs who've just closed their first round of funding. In some ways, this makes sense, because like that crowd, Stinnett is on the verge of changing the world. In his case that means changing the make-up of the electorate so that environmental issues become a top political priority. Before anyone panics, be assured that what Stinnett is doing is brilliant, creative, and 100% legal. His non-partisan nonprofit is called the Environmental Voter Project, and it's the first organization of its kind.
Stinnett is a Yale grad and lawyer with a J.D. from Boston College, who started his career as a land use attorney. Later, he became a sought after advisor and campaign manager for political contests from local elections to senatorial races. One day, while reviewing polling results with a friend, he noticed something remarkable. He'd always been aware of a disconnect between how the majority of Americans feel about protecting the environment, and the way voters and politicians prioritize environmental issues. Seeing the data, he suddenly understood something disturbing: Environmentalists don't vote.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I had to check with a few other people to be convinced that what I was seeing was correct." What he was seeing is that of the 20 million Americans who report that climate and environmental issues are one of their top priorities, almost half did not vote in the 2012 presidential campaign. In addition, more than 75% failed to vote in any mid-term elections. What we have isn't a "persuasion problem" regarding environmental issues in this country - we have a voter turn out problem.
"It feels counterintuitive, because we think of environmentalists as being very civic-minded and engaged," Stinnett notes, "but when it comes to elections, they don't actually vote. The unfortunate result is a green voting gap. Therefore, politicians, in turn - who put voter priorities first because they want to get reelected - deemphasize environmental issues."
The solution? Rock the Green Vote. But how? This is where Stinnett's decade of experienced campaigning comes in. By using a database that matches 600+ data points with public voting records, Stinnett and his team were able to build predictive voting models to identify non-voting "super environmentalists." These citizens care most about the environment, but are least likely to vote in any given race.
"Because they don't vote, this group is often overlooked by campaigners, who focus on getting active voters to the polls," Stinnett explained. "For politicians getting likely supporters out to the polls is key, and they try hard not to waste money or outreach efforts on those unlikely to show up. Their political strategy is the most effective for winning a particular race, but we want to win the electorate. It's a long game."
Stinnett launched the Environmental Voter Project in the fall of 2015, after raising $400,000 through crowdfunding for a twelve-month plan beginning in Massachusetts. That's both his home and a hot bed of non-voting environmentalists. Once non-voters are identified, the campaign uses tried and true strategies, like canvassing, calling and digital advertising to boost engagement. Each political race presents a chance to prove the concept and convert non-voting green advocates into voters.
Starting at the municipal level, then taking on the state presidential primary, Stinnett and his team were able to use this big data strategy to boost "super green" voter turn out by 5.1% in the state - or over 14,000 people. They are now raising $650,000 and plan to expand their reach to Arizona and Georgia, where there are similar populations of untapped environmental enthusiasts in a relatively small geographic area.
What is interesting is that success for the EVP is not winning any given election. They never support a particular candidate or talk directly about environmental issues in their material. They have only one goal: to get people who care about the environment to the polls. Stinnett will know they've been successful when climate change and other environmental issues poll among the top three voter priorities. He believes he can make that happen given five years of EVP's activities in any state. This is a unique approach to environmental advocacy - and it's working.
To learn more about the EVP and how to get involved, visit the Environmental Voter Project website. You can also click here to hear a recent lecture Stinnett gave at St. Mary's College of Maryland, explaining his concept and work in more detail. Finally, peer pressure is the most effective tool to get people to vote - so if you know any environmentalists, go hold their toes to the campfire!