Campaign Finance

Why the Greens Matter Less to Obama 2012


On Nov. 6, some 10,000 environmental activists descended on the White House to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would deliver crude oil from Canada to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. Disgruntled activists said that if the White House approves the project, they won’t campaign for President Obama in 2012, and some threatened to sit out Election Day altogether. “I will leave him,” says Kathleen Thompson, a 58-year-old yoga teacher from Mansfield, Pa., who attended the rally. Thompson says she’d sooner not vote than cast her lot with any of Obama’s GOP challengers.

The protest garnered headlines, but even its organizers acknowledge they’re struggling to influence the Administration. Though Obama has implemented dramatic new fuel-efficiency standards for cars and is mulling whether to grant approval for the pipeline before deciding whether to grant approval, he caught fire from environmentalists who fought against his decision to continue offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and reject tighter ozone standards, decisions environmentalists fought against.

The campaign may be banking on polls that show Americans are far more worried about the economy than clean air and betting environmentalists like Thompson would never support a Republican over Obama. Liberals have many reasons to come to the polls, and the environment is just one of them, says Democratic strategist Steve McMahon. “Some people vote on one issue, but there are many, many, many more who vote on a much wider range of issues,” he says. “The President’s political team understands that better than anyone.”

The Obama campaign insists the environment remains a top priority. The President’s GOP challengers, in contrast, have questioned the causes of global warming (Mitt Romney), said the science on climate change “is not settled yet” (Rick Perry), and referred to the issue as “poppycock” (Herman Cain). When voters compare Obama’s record with theirs, “there will be no question about who will continue our progress,” says campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.

Yet financial support from greens has been lackluster. People affiliated with the oil and gas industry—not exactly Obama’s natural allies—have given the Obama campaign almost three times as much as environmentalists have, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington group that tracks campaign spending. Individuals employed by or affiliated with the oil and gas industry wrote checks totaling $94,543 through Sept. 30, while those from green groups donated $37,315. “It’s really early in the cycle for environmental groups, which are nonprofits,” says Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the political arm of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The oil guys … have big bank accounts and consider this a business transaction.”

Some die-hard Obama backers say they’re unlikely to be as generous as they have been in the past if the Administration doesn’t pay more heed to the environment. Jabe Blumenthal, a former Microsoft (MSFT) executive in Seattle who co-chairs a nonprofit called Climate Solutions, says his support for Obama is “guaranteed.” But unlike 2008, when he and his wife gave the maximum legal donation to Obama’s campaign, Blumenthal says he won’t be as eager to open his checkbook. “They probably assume that at the end of the day … when confronted with a choice between Obama and Perry, or Obama and Mitt Romney, that of course I’ll give all my money to Obama,” says Blumenthal. “And that’s simply not true.”

The bottom line: Greens have threatened to withhold support for Obama’s reelection. To date, oil industry types have donated triple what greens have.

Andersen Brower is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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