The Wedge Issue – R.I.P?

By: Brian Bohnert

Largely buried in the furor of the historic nature of the presidential election, our old electoral friend “the wedge issue” has not disappeared completely.  Used to great effect in the 2000, and 2004 elections by Rove and the RNC to get voters to the polls (although, it should be noted that there is not much statistical evidence for the actual success of said strategy), wedge issues have worked their way onto ballots around the country for the 2008 election.  What exactly defines a wedge issue in terms of ballot politics?  From the name, we can assume that these are issues designed to create division within the electorate and to play upon fears – many times unfounded.  Almost exclusively social issues, these debates many times turn irrational and play to the lowest common denominator of humanity.  This video explains further:

However, these are not necessarily issues that should be taken lightly or brushed aside by political observers as they have the potential to mobilize large numbers of voters to volunteer in campaigns and to get to the polls on election day.  While Colorado has its fair share of wedge issues on the ballot (48, 46), lets take a look at some of the other issues that are showing up on the ballot for voters do decide on tomorrow.

Wedge issue #1) – Same sex marriage – a question pertaining to this shows up on ballots in Arizona (Prop. 102) Arkansas (Initiative 1), California (Prop. 8)  and Florida (Am. 2).  Each one of these addresses a different facet of the the same sex debate that is taking place in states across the country.  The Arizona measure is similar to one that failed in 2006 that would make it constitutionally illegal for gay couples to marry.  It is already illegal by way of statute, which is why this failed in 2006 and will most likely again fail in 2008.  The Arkansas measure makes it illegal for “cohabiting couples outside of a valid marriage” to adopt kids (because I suppose an overcrowded orphanage is much better for their overall psychological development), the Florida question bans same-sex marriage, and California’s measure seeks to reverse a  Supreme Court decision last year that struck down a ban on same-sex marriage. – something that had Ellen dancing, and Bill O pontificating.

While each of these scream “GET TO THE POLLS YOU EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS!!!” it is clear that this voting block does not hold the sway it once did a few short years ago.  While this continues to be at the top of the list for James Dobson and his loyal followers,grand_ayatollah_james_dobson  America as a whole has largely moved on from the issue to more pressing things, like real issues that actually matter.

Wedge Issue #2 – Abortion –  This issue shows up on the Colorado ballot (Am 48 – definition of personhood), the South Dakota ballot (Init. 11) and the California ballot (Prop 4 – parental notification).  The most aggressive attack on reproductive rights comes from the South Dakota measure that would ban all abortions except in the case of rape and health of the mother, put doctors in jail and is clearly desinged to overturn Roe v. Wade.  While the voters of SD have previously voted to turn down such restrictive laws, all eyes will be focused on the outcome of this election as polling predicts that it has a good chance of passing.  This of course, makes the presidential election all that more important as the next commander-in-chief will determine the make up of the Supreme Court for the foreseeable future.

Wedge Issues # 3-7 – immigration, stem cell research, affirmative action, marijuana, assisted suicide –  While the bulk of the ballot debate has focused on abortion and same-sex marriage, other states will be deciding about these other popular wedge issues.  Arizona makes it illegal to hire immigrants that are undocumented, Michigan voters will decide if stem cell research is allowed and if marijuana can be legal for medicinal use, and Washington state will continue its battle over doctor assisted suicide or “right to die” debate that has been going on for the past eight years.  

While each one of these alone does not determine national policy, the test cases that each of these represent have broader implications for future laws.  While most political pundits have large Democratic wins across the nation, one can wonder if that will translate into decisive victories on these ballot initiatives as well (you can track the results here). If the original intention was to get these on the ballot so conservative voters will come to the polls, it might have backfired.  In other words, what would be more debilitating to “pro-life” advocates if Am 48 in Colorado and Initiative 11 in South Dakota lose by substantial margins?  What if Democratic voters come out in droves to vote for Barack Obama and while in the booth vote to keep gay marriage legal in California and allow gay couples to adopt in Arkansas?  Whatever the results, wedge issues will never completely disappear, but hopefully using them solely for political gain at the polls will be a thing of the past.

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2 Comments

Filed under Negative Campaigning

2 responses to “The Wedge Issue – R.I.P?

  1. Heather Ellerbrock

    Remember….2006 allowed for Colorado voters to ban gay marriage by passing Amendment 43, 56% to 44%.
    It is so interesting to think that these issues exist on a ballot. On one hand, the voters are acting as a jury to their community, deciding what course of life is best for people. On the other hand, the state and federal Supreme Courts could make all the decisions which, in turn, decides what course of life is best for people. What is the way to fix this? It is frustrating and it bothers me constantly. Personally, I would allow any person to take which course of life makes them happy as long as it does not pose a harmful threat to anyone else; and by harmful I mean violent.
    Do we as a people have any right to determine how anyone should live their life if it does not pose a threat to the community? I would always answer this question as “No!”.
    But you bring up a good point. These measures will never leave the ballot since America has a “Gladys Kravitz” complex that will never be cured.

  2. Tony Robinson

    Very good post Brian. I love all the resources you link to, including the academic paper on how the wedge strategy maybe wasn’t all that powerful in Ohio back in 2004. The Arkansas ban on gay couples adopting is just amazingly backwards and demonstrably harmful to kids waiting for SOMEONE to adopt them and I can hardly believe people have such stones in their hearts that they are willing to harm children due to some moral fear of forbidden love. I know that they feel they are doing kids a favor by keeping them out of a gay household–but at some point don’t you have to consider actual evidence that kids in gay families are not more likely to be psychologically messed up, while kids in state foster care/orphanages i would bet are? There is a reality-based community of facts out there, and it would be nice if people would actually consult them.

    The results from California, etc., on these gay marriage bans are surprising. Obama’s huge surge in black voters probably helped seal the deal for overturning the S.Court decision allowing gay marriage in CA. While white voters in California supported the gay marriage decision, black voters voted to reverse gay marriage, something like 70 to 30%. Same pattern in Florida. How ironic that in one of the civil rights issues of our day, the black community seems to have abandoned a bit of its own civil rights legacy and is now on the front line of traditionalism and hierarchy, standing against civil rights progress on this issue.

    What would MLK do?

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