As we get closer to November, I thought it would be useful to examine the devil in modern politics. The wedge issue. What role will it have this fall, and will it once again doom Democrats chances for the White House?
What is a wedge issue? It’s simple. It’s an social or cultural issue that is meant to galvanize those voters who, based solely on economic factors, would vote Democratic. The wedge issues peels off these voters to the Republican side, scraping and collecting the most vulnerable voters from the working class, traditional Democratic base.
In my opinion, it all started in 1968 with the man who invented modern Republican campaigning (yes, campaigning, not ideology), Richard Millhouse Nixon, in his second attempt to win the White House against Vice President Hubert H Humphrey. In what many consider to be the most important election of the second half of the 20th century, Richard Nixon was able to eek out a small margin of victory and change the course of American history. That is where I’ll begin.
1968 Former VP Richard Nixon (R) vs. VP Hubert H. Humphrey (D) vs. Gov. George Wallace (I)
Wedge Issue(s): Crime and Fear, Busing
Effective: Yes. It was close in the popular vote (.5% difference) but not in the electoral college (301-191). Using the images of the chaos at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Nixon’s campaigned to prove that Democrats could not keep America safe, whether at home, or abroad with the growing chaos in Vietnam. Nixon siphoned off many disgruntled, Democratic voters especially in suburban area, and kept Humphrey on the defense. Of course, this isn’t the only reason he won, numerous other factors played into this race. But Crime and Fear, and to a lesser extend, the growing controversy over busing, helped Nixon throughout America to win a decisive Electoral College victory.
1972 President Richard Nixon (D) vs. Senator George McGovern
Wedge Issue(s): Busing
Effective: Moderate. Busing didn’t win the election for Nixon (McGovern’s incompetent campaign and Nixon’s foreign policy trickery were more decisive), but the Supreme Court’s 1971 Decision mandated that schools must work to desegregate. To many suburbans Americans, in the south but more importantly, also in the north, having their children bussed to inner city schools, or having inner city student in their suburban, white school was a terrifying concept. Nixon played on these fears, including using television ads. Even though it was a foregone conclusion that Nixon would win, the margin of victory, a 49 states to one blowout including a 10 point victory in McGovern’s home state of South Dakota.
1976 President Gerald Ford (R) vs. Governor Jimmy Carter (D)
Wedge Issue(s): None. Minor ones – “Lust in my heart”, Draft-dodgers pardons.
Effective: No. In the post-Watergate climate, and with Gerald Ford trying to distance himself from Nixon, this election was Carter’s to lose, not Ford’s to win. A series of blunders by Carter (the aforementioned quasi-wedge issues) caused his 30 points post-Convention lead to evaporate. Carter still became only the second Democrat since WWII (after Johnson) to win a majority of the America vote, with a razer thin 2% popular vote, 36 electoral vote victory.
Ford was not a Nixonite Republican, nor was he from the Goldwater wing of the party, the wing that would soon takeover control of the party, hence his inability to effectively use Wedge Issues.
1980 President Jimmy Carter (D) vs. Governor Ronald Reagan (R)
Wedge Issue(s): States Rights (Racial Issues)
Effective: Yes. 1980 marked a huge shift in the use of wedge issues. Whereas before, they had been apparent, aired in television ads and evident to all voters. In 1980, Republicans began to run mirror campaigns, where the candidates would say one thing, but surrogates and ground organizers would say something else.
Reagan ran this campaign perfectly. While he focused on economic issues to a larger audience, to smaller audiences, especially in the South (as 1980 would be the year that Republicans took over the south) under the mantle of “state’s rights”, race was used to pull white Southern Democrats into the Republican fold in States such as Mississippi and Alabama both of which voted for Jimmy Carter.
This also started another trend – Republican inaction regarding the wedge issue. And it made sense electorally, if you eliminated the wedge issue as an issue, then how would you continue to pry those voters away from the Democrats?
1984 President Ronald Reagan (R) vs. Former VP Walter Mondale (D)
Wedge Issue(s): None that were new.
Effective: Inconclusive. In the biggest landslide in history (according to popular vote margin), Reagan ran a campaign that ignored his opponent and allowed him to self destruct with lines such as “I will raise taxes”, along with Mondale’s ill-advised attempt to make the issue about age. No real wedge issues here, this election was too much of a landslide to analyze the use of wedge issues. Almost all swing voters voted for Reagan.
1988 VP George H. W. Bush (R) vs. Governor Michael Dukakis (D)
Wedge Issue(s): Furloughs/Crime: Willie Horton
Effective: VERY. I believe that the Willie Horton ads are still the most famous political ads in TV history. The effect was devastating, the crime issue mixed in with some implicit race baiting (including darkening Horton’s photos and turning the first name “William” into the more raciallly tinged “Willie”) It worked perfectly as a wedge issue – it took economic issues of the table, including the potential recession, neutralized the fallout from Iran Contra, and put Dukakis on the defensive. Moreover, it allowed Bush to win many potential Dukakis voters, becoming the 5th time in 6 tries that the Republicans had beat the Democrats.
This was the peak of wedge issues, giving Republicans victory in a year that Democrats should have won.
1992 President George H. W. Bush (R) vs. Governor Bill Clinton (D) vs. Ross Perot (I)
Wedge Issue(s): None – Ross Perot
Effective: Nope. Ross Perot’s campaign and his focus on economic issues, along with Clinton’s famous slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid”, doomed Republicans. Bush also shot himself in the foot with his oath “Read my Lips, no new taxes”, and then raising taxes, anathema to Republicans. The end of the cold war also made this election unique in the absense of foreign policy issues, severely hurting Bush’s experience message.
However, with Clinton winning with a plurality of 43%,
1996 President Bill Clinton (D) vs. Senator Bob Dole (R)
Wedge Issue(s): Affirmative Action, Hollywood Indecency
Effective: No. Bob Dole tried to make Affirmative Action an issue in this campaign, playing to the anger of mostly white voters who felt that they were not getting jobs or getting into school because of racial preferences. But Bill Clinton responded with one the greatest lines in campaign history, “Mend it, don’t end it.” This played to both sides, voters who did think their was justification for Affirmative Action, and to those who wanted it gone. It also hurt that Dole was the wrong messenger, with his genuine sincerely regarding civil rights, and his refusal to use race to make Affirmative Action a larger issue.
On the other, more minor issue of Hollywood indecency, Bob Dole was once again not the effective messenger for a weak wedge issue. Voters did not see too much sex and violence on TV as a major issue (judging by TV ratings, it was actually the opposite), nor did they see Bob Dole as the vehiclefor this issue. Clinton’s advocacy of the “V” chip, and arguing for parental control rather than Government control, destroyed any traction that this had as a wedge issue.
2000 VP Al Gore (D) vs. Governor George W. Bush
Wedge Issue(s): Morality, Moral Decay
Effective: VERY. In the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, George W. Bush ran on a platform of restoring dignity to the White House and put Al Gore in a bind – either support Clinton and be seen supporting his immorality, or avoid Clinton and his economic record. Bush implicitly implied that the moral decay he saw in America was due to the President’s deftness with a cigar. He repeatedly called for a restoration of dignity, a message that appealed to swing voters, especially in an election where the two candidates were, as Ralph Nader put it “two sides of the same coin.”
In retrospect, there was little Gore could have done to combat this except have a more forceful, Progressive message that differentiated himself from Bush and gave voters another reason to vote for him besides morality.
2004 President George W. Bush vs. Senator John Kerry
Wedge Issue(s): Terrorism, Gay Marriage
Effective: VERY. Republicans opened two fronts against John Kerry. Gay Marriage was done at the local level, put on as ballet initiatives meant to drive out the social conservative vote. People have argued that Gay Marriage was not a Wedge Issue because it was more geared towards bringing out the base. I argue that it was a Wedge Issue, because it politicized a rural electorate to vote on social issues rather than on economic issues, where Kerry probably would have done much better.
But the most effective, overt Wedge Issue was Terrorism. The famous Wolves ad portrays this dynamic perfectly. By playing on the fears of swing voters, Bush was able to siphon of those who might otherwise have voted for Kerry, especially as the economy was doing so badly and the War in Iraq was becoming more and more of a quagmire.
2008: What can we expect?
Potential Wedge Issues: Illegal Immigration, Iran, Gay Adoption
Why Wedge Issues may not be Effective: Wedge issues are meant to distract voters from other, less favorable issues. This year, the issues least favorable to Republicans would be 1) The War in Iraq and 2) The economy. Poll after poll has showed that both Republicans and Democrats seem those two issues as the most important issues facing America. A majority believe that the country is going in the wrong direction. Republican attempts to change the narrative have failed thus far. If voters vote and choose candidates on these issues, Democrats will undoubtadly win the Presidency.
So far, Immigration has failed to work for Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, and for Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter anywhere. The current media frontrunner (John McCain) will be unable to demonize immigrants due to his own support for last year’s failed immigration reform plan. Iraq had made America too war weary for Iran, and Gay Adoption has failed to create the same sort of disproportionate hysteria that Gay Marriage did in 2004.
Why Wedge Issues may be Effective: Will Immigration = National security? Will Terrorism rear its ugly ahead and scare voters away from Democrats? In 1988, with a weak economy and the fallout from Iran Contra still fresh, Republicans were able to effectively shift the narrative onto crime and Willie Horton, forcing Democrats to fight on issues that were unfavorable to them. What is to say that the same thing won’t happen again?
Iraq is fading as a concern with voters, and the violence seems to diminishing. Democrats have yet to fully take control of the economic message. Immigration is still a fierce topic among Republicans and Border State independents. Though I doubt it, I would never count the Republicans out when it comes to wedge issues.
Immigration will not be the terrorism of 2008. George W. Bush’s Presidency is so unpopular, Republicans will not have the political capital to change the national narrative. Even if they try, Bush’s failures will provide effective ammunition for Democrats to fight back. Democrats can only lose by shooting themselves in the foot, ala George Bush 1992, or Jimmy Carter 1980. Except much, much worse. This is our race to lose.
FYI – Sources (not all sources, but most of them):
1) The Making of the President, 1960 and 1968, Theodore White
2) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hunter S. Thompson
3) Wikipedia – Presidential Elections
4) Republicans and Race, Paul Krugman, New York Times
5) History and Calumny, David Brooks, New York Times
6) The Living Room Candidate, American Museum of the Moving Image
7) How the Wedge Issues Cut, Times Magazine
8) Washington Post, “Morality #1 Issue Among Republicans”
Crossposted at Dailykos