- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008


This year’s presidential campaign might put the sharpest elbows of politics in a sling for a while. Both Barack Obama and John McCain promise healing - a period of electoral convalescence devoid of bone crushing partisanship. And even if neither can permanently cure polarization, both promise therapy.

So will the Republican and Democratic White House aspirants give controversial issues a rest in 2008? Don’t bet on it. Actually, wedge politics are alive and well. They may get used to an even greater degree this year than in previous presidential campaigns. But technological change and new political tactics mean you might not hear as much about them.

Presidential campaigns deploy wedge issues differently than you think. That’s one of the main conclusions of a fascinating new book titled by D. Sunshine Hillygus and Todd G. Shields. They argue presidential candidates use controversial topics to do more than just fire up base voters, as suggested by conventional wisdom. “Political pundits and journalists commonly argue that President Bush’s attention to abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research in the 2004 campaign was an appeal to his extremist core supporters.”

They quote a typical journalistic account of the 2004 campaign: “Instead of edging toward the middle, Mr. Bush ran hard to the right. Instead of trying to reassure uncertain moderates, he worked hard to stoke the passion of those who needed no convincing.” Both parties - whether it’s to raise money or win primaries - pander to their respective bases, according to this view.

But Mrs. Hillygus and Mr. Shields contend this perspective is incomplete. Divisive issues also get used to cross-pressure and win support from the other side. “We argue that divisive issues are often used to appeal to persuadable voters often from the opposing partisan camp,” they write.

This argument challenges some conventional wisdom about politics in the last decade. Mrs. Hillygus and Mr. Shields posit that while Washington politicians now exhibit intense polarization, voters are not as divided into unpersuadable partisan camps. They also challenge the notion that the number of undecided voters is so small that both sides should just try to mobilize their respective bases to win elections. Instead, they maintain the number of persuadable voters is higher than we think, and often the best way to reach them is through targeted and sometimes controversial issues.

These “persuadable partisans” are often overlooked - especially among those who believe all Democratic and Republican identifiers vote in lockstep with their party. Mrs. Hillygus and Mr. Shields suggest broadening the lens. “We find that the number of persuadable partisans in the electorate is nearly three times the size of persuadable Independents,” they write.

Pro-life Democrats offer a case in point. As the Democratic Party has become more hostile toward the pro-life perspective, many of these voters feel intense electoral cross-pressures. Presidential campaigns can target these voters and raise the possibility that a Democratic identifier defects to the Republicans as the only way to resolve this moral conflict. Mrs. Hillygus and Mr. Shields call these voters “but otherwise” Democrats and Republicans, “as in the voter who is ‘pro-life, but otherwise Democratic’ or ‘opposed to the Iraq War, but otherwise Republican.’ ”

It’s true that the vast majority of partisan identifiers still vote for their respective sides. But elections are won on the margin. Mrs. Hillygus and Mr. Shields note that the number of partisan defectors was large enough to make the difference between the winner and the loser in 10 of the last 14 presidential elections.

With the advent of microtargeting - a technique where massive amounts of consumer and attitudinal data are added to other voter information - campaigns can now target and cross-pressure partisans like never before. So, even if you’re not hearing a lot about a “wedge issue,” someone else may be. Mrs. Hillygus and Mr. Shields call this “dog whistle politics” - sending out messages only certain voters can perceive. Technology has both sharpened the precision and increased the prevalence of wedge campaign messages. Both parties now exploit these new targeting tools - pro-embryonic stem cell Republicans get cross-pressured to vote Democrat, while “don’t tax the Internet” Democrats are possibly persuaded by the GOP. It’s the political equivalent of “long tail marketing” - finding electoral success by aggregating large numbers of small niche groups.

So, ironically, even though John McCain and Barack Obama both seem like the candidates least likely to exploit traditional controversial wedge issues - both will raise them. But they will do so with different voters and in a more subtle way than you might think.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide