Whither the wedge issues

If the National Rifle Association fires a gun in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Published September 22, 2008 4:43PM (EDT)

The National Rifle Association's political victory fund just fired a shot across the bow of the Obama campaign. The group’s site, clumsily titled GunBaNObama (get it?!), features the television and radio ads the NRA is broadcasting to scare gun owners into going to the polls. The site proclaims that Obama would be the "most anti-gun president in American history."

I'm sure there are single-issue voters who will be voting for or against one candidate or the other because of their records on abortion, guns, same-sex marriage and so forth. I don't doubt that there are ample targeted, dog-whistle campaigns going on beneath the national radar. Nor am I suggesting that the axis of reactionary conservatism (God + guns + gays) will be irrelevant, or that some women voters, even former Hillary Clinton supporters, aren’t going to troop to the polls, however grudgingly, and pull the lever for Obama for no other reason than the prospect of John McCain (or Sarah Palin) appointing a couple more anti-choice Supreme Court justices.

But is it my imagination or are wedge issues factoring less prominently than they have in recent campaigns? Have the bigger questions about how to handle the economy and the war finally pushed wedge issues to the periphery of the national conversation? If so, that's probably a good thing.

Update: My Salon colleagues inform me that their reporting from the field confirms this idea of fading wedge issues. Alex Koppelman says he is discovering a similar effect in his research for a forthcoming piece about the declining relevance of the stem cell issue. And in his superb piece filed from Pennsylvania about the power of abortion-related issues this cycle, Walter Shapiro found the same:

What made this encounter perhaps emblematic of something larger was that while Murray stressed that as a Catholic he is strongly opposed to abortion (as is Gerrity), he made clear that this was not a voting issue for him this year--even though McCain agrees with him and Obama does not. As Sen. Bob Casey, a Scranton native who is among the nation's most prominent antiabortion Democrats, said in an interview, "When the economy is in difficult straits, as it is now, it does push out other factors."

The decline of social issues, even in culturally conservative areas like Scranton, was also reflected in comments by Jon Seaton, the McCain coordinator for Pennsylvania and Ohio. "This [abortion] is not the overriding issue," Seaton said Saturday. "We hear at town meetings that people are much more concerned about economic issues and the cost of a gallon of gas. Yes, there is a clear difference between McCain and Obama on the life issue. But it is not the overriding concern."

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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