Conventional wisdom says that gun rights are a big political issue not because lots of people are extremists on the issue. There’s actually not all that many of them. Rather, the issue is intensity: the zealots tend to be very, very loud and they make it clear that they’ll punish politicians who step out of line even slightly. Atrios riffs on why Democrats don’t seem to get the same kind of mileage from their issues:
The thing is that D politicians rarely try to inspire their own intense single issue voters who could be turned out on issues, including, yes, the gun issue. But you can’t turn out single issue reproductive health voters (I mean those who don’t necessarily vote all the time) on “safe, legal, and rare.” You can’t turn out anti-war voters on “kindler, gentler wars, mostly with your pal Droney.” You can’t turn out gun control voters on “um…more background checks and… [thinks hard] raise the age of legally buying a gun that shoots a round 45 times per minute to the Bud Light buying age?” And Dems tend to speak in pundit approved gibberish speak. “Let’s close the gun show loophole.” Um, sure, what the hell is that again?
….Maybe these political calculations are correct. Maybe “an abortion cart on every corner” will turn off the totebagging moderates more than it will inspire intense single issue votes. But don’t be surprised when common sense rhetoric about “common sense proposals” doesn’t inspire your base to turn out at midterms….Nobody’s going to vote to bend the cost curve. They’ll vote if you promise them they can go to the damn doctor. Intensity can be there, but it’s gonna require leadership to maintain it.
I’m just going to toss out a few miscellaneous comments on this:
- There are issues where Democrats get a lot of mileage from single-issue voters. Reproductive health is one of them. Ancient Clintonian rhetoric aside, virtually every Democrat these days supports more-or-less unlimited abortion on demand—and they’re punished if they don’t.¹ Ditto for gay rights. And increasingly immigration is in this bucket too, because activist groups have made it clear that Democrats will be punished if they compromise more than slightly on immigration legislation.
- More people self-ID as conservatives than as liberals. They just do. This means Republicans can usually win by attracting maybe a third of centrist voters. By contrast, Democrats usually need about two-thirds of the centrists. Democrats simply have less elbow room to pander to their extremists and still win.
- For good or ill, Republicans are given more leeway by the media to be lunatics.
- This problem of intensity often comes up in the context of young voters. How can Dems get them to turn out in bigger numbers? Finding hot button issues might be one of the answers. But another is to stop focusing so much on the college educated. Bloggers are especially bad at this because we and all our friends tend to be verbal, college-educated folks with a lot of interest in politics. Instead, think about a 20-year-old C+ high school grad who spends a lot of time playing videogames or chatting on Facebook—and is, at the very least, nonconservative. What might motivate them to turn out to vote? Free college? Nah. Free health care? Nah. Most of them are pretty healthy. Abortion? For the women maybe, but not the men. Overseas wars? They probably don’t really care that much. These are all issues that appeal to folks who are already politically engaged, but not so much to the Beavis and Butthead vote. So what will? Has anyone asked them?
Bottom line: sure, Democrats should have a crisper message. But there are some genuine structural reasons that they don’t. Demographics are tough to get around, and the demographics of America today are a lot tougher on lunatic liberals than on lunatic conservatives. Like it or not, we have to do things differently.
¹The main exceptions are Dems in red or deep purplish districts, where everyone is willing to leave them alone just to get another D on the roster. But that’s true of Republicans as well.