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A new front in the Biden-Trump struggle for the suburbs: forest fires

LOS ANGELES – The wildfire explosion in the west has opened a new battlefield in the critical competition for suburban voters between President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr., with evidence growing Climate change is an acute problem for many Americans, especially women, when they gaze at the nightly images of destruction and the thick blankets of crisp air.

Mr Trump has tried to combat his severe decline among suburban voters by claiming that democratic control of the White House would pose a threat to the security of the suburbs, adding to the specter of crime, riot and civil unrest “Invasion” of low-income housing, which many see as an attempt to fuel racial fears.

But Mr Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, is trying to redefine what “security” means to an electorate plagued by fear amid a pandemic, social unrest on the streets and now deadly forest fires. He sees climate change as a more real and immediate threat to the suburbs than the violence portrayed in Mr. Trump’s advertisements and public statements, and on Monday he will address the devastating fires that are sweeping forests, destroying houses and life to take.

“It’s especially tangible to people right now,” said Kate Bedingfield, assistant campaign manager for Mr. Biden.

Mr Biden’s speech came when Mr Trump was making a last-minute trip to California to meet with officials struggling with the disaster, and their claim denied that there was a link between the fires in the state and that Climate change there.

Developments suggest that an issue that has always been on the sidelines in national presidential campaigns – and this time it appeared to have been dwarfed by the pandemic and social unrest – could come to the fore within just seven weeks of election day .

For at least some suburban voters, especially those who live in the West, the risk of losing their homes to fire, or the health risks to their smoke-covered sky families, seems more immediate than the social unrest Mr. Trump highlighted in his speeches and advertising.

“We’re not seeing any change in crime,” said California Representative Katie Porter, a Democrat who represents a once solid Republican district in Orange County. “People try to stay home and stay safe.”

In a broader sense, the fires in the west – and Mr. Trump’s “It’s getting cooler, you’ll only see” degradation of climate science during his visit to California – has heightened the president’s perception as anti-science, especially after his open skepticism towards experts who advise him to act more aggressively against the Covid-19 pandemic.

“These fires in the west are obviously blue states and most of the country is not experiencing them,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. “But it’s a reminder for many people – especially those more educated suburban voters who he believed would respond to law and order – how he is against science.”

Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican strategist who is critical of Mr Trump, said the buoyant suburban voters who delivered the House of Representatives to the Democrats in 2018 were “repulsed by the way the president talks about climate” and specifically about that Science in general.

“I don’t think these suburban voters will become climate change voters in 2020,” said Stutzman, “but the discussion about all of this underscores this Trump Neanderthalism that offends them.”

The importance of the battle was re-emphasized on Tuesday when Senator Kamala Harris, Mr Biden’s runner-up, returned to assess the damage in her home state, met with Governor Gavin Newsom near Fresno and saw the rubble of a house and one School playground examined destroyed in the Creek Fire.

The forest fires helped illustrate a critical difference between Trump’s White House and a possible Biden presidency. And Mr Biden signaled what turns out to be a key contest – to define the greatest threats to the nation, and those living in the suburbs in particular – as the candidates near three debates.

“Donald Trump warns that integration threatens our suburbs. That’s ridiculous, ”said Mr Biden on Monday. “But do you know what actually threatens our suburbs? Forest fires are burning in the suburbs of the west. Floods are wiping out suburban areas in the Midwest. Hurricanes threaten life in the suburbs on our coasts. “

In an election where the gender gap was already a serious problem for the president – polls show that women support Mr Biden in far greater numbers than men – a renewed focus on climate could prove politically problematic for the effort proving Mr. Trump to win a polling bloc he has memorably dubbed “the” suburban housewife “.

“Women are far more concerned than men,” said Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Communication on Climate Change at George Mason University. “The only group in America that doesn’t care about climate change are conservative white men.”

In a poll earlier this year, the Pew Research Center found that Republican women are more supportive of climate change than their male counterparts. For example, 47 percent of Republican women said the government was doing too little to protect air quality, compared with just 32 percent of Republican men. Similar differences existed in the treatment of water quality, emissions restrictions for power plants, and stricter fuel efficiency standards.

“To the extent that there is a swing vote in these elections, there are many Republican women, many of whom are in the suburbs,” said John D. Podesta, a top adviser to former President Barack Obama Climate Change served as Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairwoman. “And that’s a topic that interests you.”

Another Pew poll released last month found that 69 percent of people in the suburbs said climate change was at least somewhat important to determining their 2020 vote, with 41 percent saying it was very important.

The fires and dangerous air they created have so far been centered on democratic parts of the nation and, with the exception of Arizona, are not highlighted on the campaign battlefield maps at Biden and Trump’s headquarters.

But Mr Biden’s advisors, as well as environmentalists, who for years have frustratedly watched their problems relegated to the back of a drawer, believe that the very destruction of the fires made this a powerful problem.

This is especially true during times of hurricanes, dramatic temperature changes, and wild weather in other parts of the country. As the fires raged, the Gulf Coast prepared for the arrival of Hurricane Sally and the heavy rains and floods that came with it.

Mr Biden, in particular, has identified climate change as one of four simultaneous crises the nation is facing, along with the pandemic, economic downturn, and racial and policing reckoning.

“For the first time, the average American is likely to see climate change as a problem we have now,” said Maibach, who studies public opinion on the environment.

“They saw it as a distant problem,” Mr Maibach said earlier of the voters. “Temporally distant – maybe 2100, but not today. Far away in space – maybe Bangladesh and not Boston. And rich in species – polar bears for sure, but not humans. “

The climate change debate reflects another crucial difference between these two candidates: the value they placed on scientifically sound data. As with the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Trump once again denies claims made by scientists to minimize a threat to the nation’s wellbeing.

That emphasis could spark a backlash among suburban voters: 84 percent of suburbanites said in a poll by NPR / PBS NewsHour / Marist College last month that they trusted public health experts to provide accurate information about the coronavirus deliver, significantly more than people who live in other areas. And only 23 percent of suburbanites said they trust Mr Trump’s statements about the virus, the lowest of any geographic group.

Ms. Porter, one of the freshly fled suburban Democrats elected in 2018, said she has seen a big change in the political environment since Mr. Trump was elected president.

“You now need to be explicit about climate change,” she said. “And this is an important change from four years ago.”

Mr Podesta argued that while Mr Trump has tried to turn climate change into an “elite against regular people culture war issue” – by tying Mr Biden to aggressive political proposals such as the Green New Deal – that has fallen behind the rampant Forest fires.

“You know what,” said Mr. Podesta, “the common 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 coverage.

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