Political parties swap roles: Can social issues help Democrats?

November 3, 2014

U.S. Senator Hagan speaks with the media after addressing a group of campaign volunteers in Cornelius

The 2014 campaign marks a departure: It is the first campaign in 50 years in which Democrats are relying on social issues, while economic issues seem to be helping Republicans.

According to the well-worn scenario of American politics, Democrats run on economic populism (“fairness”) and Republicans run on social populism (“values”). But now Democratic stands on social issues, including the minimum wage, equal pay for women and equal rights for gays and lesbians, are paying off for the party.

Since the New Deal in the 1930s, Democrats have laid claim to economic populism. They are the party of the poor and “the common man” — the party that protects the economically vulnerable.


Since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, Republicans have moved in the direction of social populism. The Democratic Party’s embrace of the values of the educated upper-middle class — racial liberalism, feminism, gay rights, what are often labeled “’60s values” — drove many social and religious conservatives (a lot of them working class) into the GOP. They used to be called “Reagan Democrats.”  By now, most of them have become Republicans.

Since 1964, social issues have paid off for Republicans electorally. In 1968, Democrats lost votes on the Vietnam War, civil rights and the law-and-order issue.  In 1972, the GOP won with its “acid, amnesty and abortion” slam against the Democrats. In 1980 and 1984, the religious right rallied voters for Ronald Reagan. In 1988, it was criminal furloughs, the death penalty and the pledge of allegiance. In 1994, it was the gun issue. In 2004, it was same-sex marriage.

Only three Democrats have been elected president since 1964. All were boosted by economic populism. What drove Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976 was the Watergate scandal, but the worsening economy under Republican President Gerald Ford brought a lot of voters back to the Democratic fold. Especially because Carter was a moderate from the Deep South. Bill Clinton won in 1992 with a simple message: “The economy, stupid.”  The 2008 financial crisis produced the election of the nation’s first African-American president, Barack Obama.

This year, we have a weak economic recovery and a Democratic president. While the recovery is paying off for high-income Americans, most middle- and lower-income voters have declining or stagnant incomes. Nearly three-quarters of Americans in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll say the nation’s economy is “not so good” or “poor.” Only 28 percent say the economy is “getting better.”

This year, anxious Democrats are turning to social issues in the hope of averting catastrophe.  “We’ve got to raise our voices,” Obama said in Rhode Island last week, “… to do away with policies and politicians that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode.”

Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) speaks at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver event in Denver

Democratic Senator Mark Udall is fighting for survival in Colorado by assailing his Republican opponent’s positions on abortion and contraception. Republican Cory Gardner fought back by endorsing the sale of birth-control pills over the counter. Udall’s one-note campaign may be turning off Colorado voters. (Though a Quinnipiac University poll released on Monday shows the candidates only 2 points apart.) Meanwhile, one Democrat running for the state legislature told the New York Times, “I’ve had Democrats say to me, ‘I’m just tired of hearing about the women’s issue.’ ”

Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) is trying to survive in North Carolina by linking her Republican opponent, the state House speaker, to the legislature’s controversial new laws restricting ballot access and curbing women’s rights. A Republican comeback?  Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney went to North Carolina last week and said, “A vote for the opponent of [Republican] Thom Tillis would be a vote for President Obama’s policies.”

Democrats are even being accused of something that Republicans used to be accused of — race-baiting. A super PAC started by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) ran an ad on African-American radio in North Carolina claiming that Tillis supported the kind of gun law that “caused the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.” Democrats in Georgia circulated a flier warning African-Americans that voting is the only way “to prevent another Ferguson.” An Arkansas civil rights group sent out mailers saying, “Enough!  Republicans are targeting our kids, silencing our voices and even trying to impeach our president.”

Virginia Democrat gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe speaks to reporters at Spring Hill Elementary School in McLean

Democrats are the new social warriors. Will it work? It worked last year when Democrat Terry McAuliffe got elected governor of Virginia. McAuliffe’s Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, took retrograde positions on social issues like abortion, guns and gays – in line with past GOP policy. His positions horrified voters in the rapidly growing and culturally diverse northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, who are now one-third of the state’s voters. Still, McAuliffe’s victory margin turned out to be surprisingly narrow.

Social-issue warfare works best against Tea Party and religious-right Republicans.  But Republicans learned a lesson in 2012. This year, they avoided nominating many candidates from the right-wing extremes. Republicans who have reactionary views are not campaigning on them. They’ve got better issues to run on. Like Obama.

Social issues work best to rally the Democrats’ liberal base: educated upper-middle-class Americans, professionals and academics like Obama. They don’t do much to win over middle- and working-class Americans, who are more concerned with bread-and-butter issues. And who are dismayed by Obama’s incompetence. To those voters, it seems like Democrats are trying to change the subject. Because they are.

Some Democrats are staying competitive by talking about raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women and Republican opposition to expanding Medicaid benefits for the poor. That could pay off. But what Democrats desperately needed this year were some juicy right-wing targets to run against. Without those targets, the election has become a referendum on  Obama.

That doesn’t sound like a good deal for Democrats.



PHOTO (TOP): Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) speaks with the media after addressing a group of campaign volunteers in Cornelius, North Carolina, Nov. 1, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Keane

PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Ronald Reagan REUTERS/Archive

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) speaks at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Denver event in Denver, Oct. 24, 2014. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

PHOTO (INSERT 3): After casting his vote, Virginia Democrat gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe speaks to reporters after casting his vote at Spring Hill Elementary School in McLean, Virginia, Nov. 5, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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Republicans are running on two things: Obama’s perceived unpopularity, and lots, and lots, of money. The first has quite a bit to do with the latter IMO. Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission was a disaster for our democracy. Let’s face it, a lot of Americans don’t function above a 10th grade level in reading comprehension or literacy skills. They don’t read op-eds, they don’t read political analysis pieces. But they do know how to watch a TV, listen to a radio, or go online. So, a PAC campaign simply saturates an area with ads, truthful or no, and waits for the populace to “form their opinions”. How many times have we seen “less than truthful” adverts debunked by sites like Politico, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org? Quite a few the last few years. Problem is, the damage is done, folks remember the initial presentation, not the actual debunked facts. Obama hasn’t been a perfect President, but I do believe that his Administration, to a great extent, is a victim of this kind of money-bought political wrangling.

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