Electoral Backlash or Positive Reinforcement? Wind Power and Congressional Elections in the United States

The Journal of Politics

2022 (Forthcoming)

Johannes Urpelainen* and Alice Tianbo Zhang*

For many, the threat of a changing climate is a back-burner issue that lacks direct personal relevance and urgency. At the same time, perceived local costs could create powerful interest groups and coalitions through "not-in-my-back-yard" (NIMBY) activism.

How important are the forces of NIMBY, and are incumbents punished for the local dis-amenities created by wind turbines?

Elections are the most important means for citizens to express their views about divisive facilities, but the political science literature on the topic has little to say about their electoral effects. To fill the gap, we examine wind turbine construction in the United States between 2003 and 2012. An instrumental variable analysis shows that wind turbine construction generated large electoral benefits for (pro-renewables) Democratic candidates: every megawatt of additional wind power capacity over statewide trend increased the Democratic vote share in U.S. House elections by 0.03 percentage points. This electoral shift has contributed to a pro-environmental shift in congressional roll call voting on the environment. While the result is inconsistent with naive models of retrospective voting, it accords with positive reinforcement theories on how policies endogenously create their political support.

To understand the mechanisms through which politicians may have claimed credit or assigned blame for wind power, we use structural topic modeling, a machine learning technique, to conduct text analysis on the universe of press releases on wind energy and the environment published by politicians. We find a clear partisan divide on the merits of wind energy based on topic content and prevalence.