Donald Trump’s re-election chances are not about to tick this way or that because of his decision to exit the Paris climate accord.
Yes, environmentalism of all kinds polls very well among the population at large, while mainstream conservative Republicans are strongly opposed to this particular treaty. But it seems unlikely that this issue has the power to shift votes from one side to another. Few issues do. As political scientist Phil Klinkner tweets, most voters will evaluate Trump’s decision based on what they think of Trump, rather than evaluate Trump based on this decision.
Purely in terms of domestic electoral politics, this action feels a lot like President George W. Bush’s announcement to institute a moratorium on funding stem cell research. Commanding a primetime audience in his first year as president, it was covered as a major presidential moment. Yet no one would call it a factor in any major election since.
There are two potential exceptions to that prediction.
In the very short run, Trump’s polling numbers could move in a way that influences political actors from Congressional Republicans to executive branch bureaucrats to governors. Currently around 40 percent approval, Trump’s close to the lowest he’s been at so far. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether a mainstream Republican position on an issue where the Democratic position is more popular will drag a few conservative and moderate Republicans back to him (because he’s taking the Republican position) or whether it will push a few more independents and moderate Republicans away (because they tend to register approval for strong environmental policies). 1 Small changes in the president’s approval level over the next month at least theoretically could affect such things as continuing recruitment for the 2018 election cycle and the degree to which Republicans stick with him on the Russia-Trump scandal. Then again, even a real short-term effect, if there is one, could fade within days.
In the long run, it turns out that November 4, 2020 — the day after the next presidential election — is the day the U.S. would formally exit, according to the rules of the agreement. That could mean more coverage for the issue in the final days to that election, which could end up priming some voters to care more about that issue. Even if it doesn’t affect votes, it could elevate climate on the candidates’ agenda, which could have real governing effects going forward.
But that’s about it. As far as substantive effects of this decision, good or bad, they are likely to be far too incremental and long-term to make any electoral difference at all. Trump will, of course, say that various job gains are a direct result of his policies — but he would say that anyway, regardless of the connections between his policies and those jobs (or, for that matter, even regardless of whether there are any job gains to crow about). So I wouldn’t count that as an effect.
Given all that, it was interesting that Trump’s Rose Garden speech mostly avoided any anti-environmental rhetoric. Instead of withdrawing because climate change is (supposedly) a hoax, Trump asserted (“argued” would be too strong for his string of claims, many of which were not at all grounded in fact) that leaving Paris was necessary because the agreement was poorly negotiated, leading to both unfair treatment of the U.S. and insufficient environmental gains.
In real life, Trump’s claims that he would attempt to renegotiate Paris or negotiate a new, better agreement from scratch is preposterous. But it’s a plausible-sounding way of getting out from an agreement the president and his party dislike for other reasons. After all, it always sounds reasonable at first thought that any deal could have been negotiated at least a little bit better. It’s unclear as usual, however, whether Trump really believes that he is a brilliant bargainer or just knows that it’s useful rhetoric or simply likes saying those words. At any rate, while it’s possible other nations could offer him a fig leaf to re-enter the agreement and claim victory, there’s no reason to believe either that the rest of the world would capitulate in any substantive way or that the Trump administration will put in any significant effort on attempting to renegotiate.
At any rate, I suspect the real effects of today’s decision will be on international politics and on the actual substance of climate policy. Not on U.S. elections.