Thursday, February 7, 2008

Niche politics grew and matured in America over the past decade but now lurches into another new phase. In 2002 and 2004, Republicans pieced together enough parts of the fractured new world order — which included among others so-called security moms, a higher share of Hispanic voters than they had won in the past and a draw among independents. These groups, along with an energized conservative base, became part of a larger coalition that propelled Republicans first to regaining the majority in the Senate in 2002 and then reelecting President Bush two years later. However, in 2006 the GOP’s math did not compute because some of these voter groups fell out of the equation. But many niche voters, by their nature politically volatile, could just as easily swing back in this election. The nominee of either party could be the beneficiary or the victim of this new arithmetic, depending on how he or she practices the politics of addition in this new splintered world.

The trend toward the fragmented and specialized now defines many aspects of electoral dialogue and tactics. Talk radio attracts a particular brand of citizens, as do certain kinds of blogs and Web sites. Network news now generates a smaller and older constituency. Advocacy groups promoting particular causes communicate with laser-like focus to those predisposed to a tailored message. And campaigns have fine-tuned the art of micro-targeting. They can now reach out with a frightening amount of precision and mobilize left-handed janitors from red states who enjoy bass fishing.

We now live in a world where you can get what you want, when you want it. It’s Burger King politics — “Have it your way!” The rise of niche politics has its virtues. It stimulates heightened interest in politics by tailoring issues to a particular demographic. It also mobilizes those who might otherwise default to apathy.

But as niche politics grows, it gets harder to pull the disparate pieces together. Will young voters, energized and animated by politics for the first time, fail to vote if Sen. Barack Obama doesn’t get the Democratic nomination, thereby denying Senator Clinton needed support in the general election. Or what about disaffected conservatives when it comes to Sen. John McCain? Will they affix a scarlet letter on him and help elect the first pro-choice president in eight years, begin a retreat in the war on terror, usher in a new era of massive new Washington spending and guarantee the biggest tax increase in American history? Whichever party fails to reach out beyond its base — as a writer noted in the Weekly Standard several years ago, assessing the state of conservative politics — runs the risk of becoming all “core” and no coalition.

2006 provided a poignant lesson to Republicans about this new electoral math. Polls confirmed that the GOP did not lose base support between 2004 and 2006. The percentage of self-identified conservatives voting for Republican congressional candidates remained almost constant between those two years. That niche held. But others shifted dramatically — independent voters, Hispanics and women all found the Republican Party brand far less appealing in 2006 than two years earlier and voted Democratic in much higher numbers.

To win the White House in November, both sides must master the new niche politics in America. If Mr. McCain is the nominee, he begins with some advantages. For conservative pro-life voters, he has never wavered. For those committed to winning the war in Iraq and staying on offense against Islamic extremism, no Democrat can compete. And when it comes to cutting back on Washington’s profligate spending and earmarks, he has no peer. The equation even looks better when you add his appeal among independents, women and Hispanics. He is also bringing together conservative activists and elected officials (such as Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia).

Some niches may be unwilling to grant the Arizona senator any propitiation for what they believe are sins against conservative orthodoxy. But once a nominee is chosen, both sides will try to solidify their bases and build among the niches. And when it comes to examining the actual policy positions, Mr. McCain is probably a lot better positioned to help his party broaden appeal beyond its traditional base than either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton, who, when it comes to the issues, are both doctrinaire liberals. That niche is still a minority in America.

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