Terri Schiavo and the intensity gap

Pundits on the right say public opposition doesn't matter because the people who feel strongest about the Schiavo case agree with them. They're wrong.

By Eric Boehlert
March 28, 2005 8:31PM (UTC)
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The conservative pundits' struggle with the Terry Schiavo case continues to make for awkward reading. The most recent example comes from National Review columnist David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. Frum, like many others on the far right, argues that it doesn't matter that nearly 70 percent of Americans disagree with the religious right over the Schiavo case because most of them dont feel strongly about the issue. What matters is that a strong pro-life minority feels passionately about the case, and theyre the ones who are going to be moved to action.

"Polls on an issue like the Schiavo case are not all that useful in predicting what voters will actually do," Frum writes. "Incredible as it may seem, all over America at this very moment there are people who do not care very much about Terri Schiavo. Politically, it doesnt much matter if 70 percent of these people say they support the right to die. The crucial political question is: How do the people who do care divide? And there, I bet the pro-life side has a handsome majority."

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Frum is simply rehashing the Christian rights dated talking points. Conservative activist Gary Bauer last week told the Los Angeles Times that "intensity matters," suggesting that "the people who know the most about this controversy are the most likely to believe" that Schiavo should be allowed to live.

In other words, Frum and company are willing to take a hit in the polls on the Schiavo story because they know that, beneath the surface, its the Christian right that feels most strongly about the Schiavo case and the need to reinsert her feeding tube. And so that means a win for the GOP.

Wrong -- as least according to last weeks CBS News Schiavo poll. Asked how they felt about this issue emotionally, 77 percent on the far right who wanted Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted said they felt "strongly." But 85 percent who didnt want the tube re-inserted said they felt "strongly." Conversely, who opted for "not strongly" when asked how they felt about the case? Only 13 percent of Michael Schiavo's supporters did not feel strongly, compared to 20 percent of the pro-lifers who were apathetic.

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So yes, Frum and Bauer are correct in arguing that there is an intensity gap in the Schiavo story. Its just not the gap that they are spinning.


Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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