LOS ANGELES – The outbreak of wildfires across the West has opened a new battlefield in the critical competition for suburban voters between President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr., with growing evidence that Climate change is a major concern for many Americans, especially women, who see nighttime images of destruction and thick blankets of acrid air.
Mr. Trump sought to combat his steep decline among suburban voters by claiming that democratic control of the White House would be a threat to suburban security, raising the specter of crime, unrest and a “Invasion” of low-income housing that many see as trying to feed racist fears.
But Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, is trying to redefine what “security” means to a fear-swept electorate amid a pandemic, social unrest on the streets and now deadly fires. He is defining climate change as a more real and immediate threat to the suburbs than the violence portrayed in Mr. Trump’s public announcements and comments, capturing in a speech Monday the devastating fires that tear apart forests, destroy homes and take lives.
“It’s especially tangible to people right now,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager.
Mr. Biden’s speech came as Mr. Trump made a last-minute trip to California to meet with officials grappling with the catastrophe, and disputed their claim that there was a connection between the fires that swept the state. and climate change.
Developments suggest that an issue that has always been on the fringes of national presidential campaigns – and this time seemed eclipsed by the pandemic and social unrest – may be in the spotlight with just seven weeks until election day.
At least for some suburban voters, particularly those living in the West, the threat of losing their homes to fire or the health risks to their families from smoke-clouded skies seem more immediate than the social unrest Trump exposed. in his speeches and advertisements.
“We’re not seeing changes in crime,” said California Representative Katie Porter, a Democrat who represents a once solidly Republican district in Orange County. “People are trying to stay home, trying to stay safe.”
More broadly, the fires in the West – and Mr. Trump’s contempt “will start to get colder, just look at” climate science during his visit to California – have reinforced the president’s perception as anti-science, particularly after his open skepticism towards experts who advise him to act more aggressively against the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Those fires in the West have obviously been blue and most of the country isn’t experiencing them,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. “But it’s a reminder to a lot of people – especially these more educated suburban voters who he thought would react to law and order – of how it’s against science.”
Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican strategist critical of Trump, said the swinging suburban voters who handed Democrats over to the House of Representatives in 2018 were “dismissed by the way the president talks about climate” in particular and science in general.
“I don’t think these suburban voters will become climate change voters in 2020,” Stutzman said, “but the discussion of all of this highlights this Neanderthal Trump who is offensive to them.”
The importance of the battle was emphasized again Tuesday when Senator Kamala Harris, Mr. Biden’s running mate, returned to assess the damage to her home state, meeting with Governor Gavin Newsom near Fresno and examining the rubble of a house and school yard destroyed in the Creek Fire.
The fires helped illustrate a key difference between the Trump White House and a potential Biden presidency. And Mr. Biden signaled what is emerging as a crucial competition – to define the greatest looming threats to the nation, and specifically to people living in the suburbs – as the candidates approach three debates.
“Donald Trump warns that integration is threatening our suburbs. That’s ridiculous, “Biden said Monday.” But do you know what actually threatens our suburbs? Fires are burning the western suburbs. Floods are wiping out suburban neighborhoods in the Midwest. Hurricanes are endangering suburban life along our shores. “
In an election where the gender gap was already a major problem for the president – with polls showing women supporting Biden in far greater numbers than men – a renewed focus on climate could prove politically problematic for Trump’s efforts to conquer an electoral bloc that he has memorably tagged “The” suburban housewife “.”
“Women are much more concerned than men,” said Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. “The only American control group that doesn’t care about climate change are conservative whites.”
In a survey earlier this year, the Pew Research Center found that Republican women were more in favor of tackling climate change than their male counterparts. For example, 47% of Republican women said the government was doing too little to protect air quality, compared to only 32% of Republican men. There have been similar divisions over addressing water quality, emission limitations on power plants, and stricter fuel efficiency standards.
“To the extent that there is a fluctuating vote in this election, there are many Republican-inclined women, many of whom are in the suburbs,” said John D. Podesta, one of former President Barack Obama’s top advisors on change. climate scientist who also served as Hillary Clinton’s election campaign president. “And that’s a problem they care about.”
Another Pew poll released last month showed 69% of people in the suburbs said climate change would at least somehow be important in determining their 2020 vote, with 41% calling it very important.
The fires and dangerous air they have produced so far have been concentrated in the democratic parts of the nation and, with the exception of Arizona, are not highlighted on the campaign battlefield maps in Biden and Trump headquarters.
But Mr. Biden’s advisers, as well as environmentalists who have watched in frustration for years as their problems were relegated to the bottom of a drawer, believe that the sheer destruction of the fires further elevated this to a powerful problem.
This is especially true in a season of hurricanes, severe temperature fluctuations, and wild weather in other parts of the country. As the fires raged, the Gulf Coast was preparing for arrival of Hurricane Sally and the torrential rains and floods it would bring.
Mr. Biden specifically framed climate change as one of four simultaneous crises the nation faces, along with the pandemic, economic recession, and race and police showdown.
“For the first time, the average American will likely see climate change as a problem here, now, us,” said Mr. Maibach, who studies public opinion on the environment.
“They saw it as a distant problem,” Mr. Maibach said earlier of voters. “A long time ago – perhaps 2100 but not today. Far in space, perhaps Bangladesh and not Boston. And distant species: polar bears, sure, but not people. “
The climate change debate reflects what has been another key difference between these two candidates: the value they placed on science-based data. Once again, as with the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump is denying the claims of scientists as he tries to minimize a threat to the nation’s well-being.
This emphasis could take a backlash among suburban voters: 84% of suburban citizens said in an NPR / PBS NewsHour / Marist College poll last month that they trust public health experts to provide accurate information on the coronavirus, far more than they do. people living in other areas. And only 23 percent of suburban citizens said they trust Mr. Trump’s claims about the virus, the lowest of any geographic group.
Ms. Porter, who is one of the suburban Democrat freshmen elected in 2018, said she has seen a huge shift in the political environment since Trump was elected president.
“Now we need to explicitly address climate change,” he said. “And this is a major change from four years ago.”
Mr. Podesta said that while Mr. Trump sought to turn climate change into “an issue of elite culture warfare against ordinary people” – by linking Mr. Biden to aggressive policy proposals such as the Green New Deal – this has failed. in the face of raging fires.
“Guess what,” said Mr. Podesta, “normal people are fleeing for their lives in Oregon.”
Adam Nagourney reported from Los Angeles and Shane Goldmacher from New York. Lisa Friedman and Giovanni Russonello contributed to the report.