Edge from a wedge

Democrats are trying a tactic they believe worked for the Republicans - but how powerful is it in fact?

Politics Issues

August 06, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN STAFF

Last week Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley sent a letter to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. asking him to support a minimum-wage increase - and then immediately told the press about it. It was a textbook dare, straight out of the Democratic handbook for this election season.

Many Democrats across the nation are convinced that George Bush was elected President in 2004 thanks to a single wedge issue: gay marriage. They believe ballot initiatives aimed at banning gay marriage in several states drew large numbers of social conservatives to the polls.

This year, Democrats are trying something similar with the minimum wage, hoping their unequivocal support for this broadly popular issue will draw like-minded voters to the polls and snatch away moderate Republicans.

Statewide referendums that would raise the minimum wage have been set or are anticipated in 10 states this year, and legislation that would achieve the same goal has been proposed in 12 others, including Maryland, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal nonprofit group.

A struggle in Congress over a proposed national minimum-wage increase also is putting the issue in the forefront for federal candidates.

In Maryland, all of the 18 Democratic candidates seeking the party's nomination for the U.S. Senate in a September primary said they favored an increase in the minimum wage, a Sun survey last week showed. Republican candidates in the primary who responded to the brief survey were almost evenly split.

There is a considerable debate over just how powerful wedge issues are.

A recent Pew Research Center report argued that same-sex marriage bans on ballots in 11 states in 2004 did little to draw social conservatives to the polls for President Bush. (The issue ranked dead last in importance among 19 issues included in a June 2006 Pew poll. And although nine of the 11 states weighing bans in 2004 went for Bush, the same nine did so four years earlier.)

In Maryland, there's even greater doubt over whether Democrats, who outnumber Republicans 2-1 in registration, can use wedge issues like the minimum wage to tip elections.

"It's hard to wedge Republicans because their base in this state is very small, and they've been so starved in a Democrat-dominated state for so long that they're harder to divide," said Thomas F. Schaller, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County political science professor, who is working on a book on the Democrats' national strategy. "They're so happy to have anyone who can compete."

Schaller said Democrats in Maryland are more susceptible to have their constituency divided on wedge issues "because they have a larger, more diverse coalition."

The idea that an issue that sharply divides Americans can drive up turnout was offered in 2004 after some campaign strategists concluded that President Bush partially owed his re-election to the same-sex marriage ban on the ballot in Ohio. Since then the concept has spread.

While many states will be voting on "wedge issues" this fall, candidates or political parties touting bans on gay marriage, raises in the minimum wage or restrictions on funding for stem cell research are using more than ballot referendums to tap into voters' emotions and values.

Experts say it's certainly no coincidence that the Republican-led Congress has taken up bans on same-sex marriage and flag burning and legislation preserving "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance this year.

"The more voters feel is at stake, the greater the turnout will be," said Mark Mellman, a Washington-based pollster. "With these issues, such as gay marriage, Republicans are trying to say to their base, `This is an important election. You may feel demobilized or distraught about the way Republicans have been faring, but there are still important issues at stake.' "

The next tactic is to use highly scripted speeches and ads to grab moderate voters from the other side and paint the opponent's stance on the wedge issue as extreme.

The classic wedge issue, argues Pew researcher and Executive Vice President Paul Taylor, is one that "draws more of one kind of partisan than another to the polls."

This so-called "intensity gap" exists on the gay-marriage and minimum-wage issues, according to Taylor. Of gay-marriage opponents, 45 percent rate the issue as "very important," but among those who favor it, only 27 percent view it that way, according to Pew polls. On increasing the minimum wage, 67 percent of Democrats rate it as "very important" while only 36 percent of Republicans do so.

What this means is that it's a safe bet that an initiative to ban same-sex marriage wouldn't lure droves of Democrats to the polls. The same principle would apply for Republicans on a proposal to raise the minimum wage.

Hence, this fall, same-sex marriage bans are on the ballot in Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin; and minimum wage increases in Missouri, Ohio, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada.

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