Working a Wedge Issue

This op-ed column was originally published at

Rick Berman, CUF Executive Director

Given the increased polarization of the electorate, expect to see more issue-based fighting to influence the opinions of independent voters. These are the voters who do not follow the letter after a candidate name. They have a different North Star than party designation. They are generally more inclined to vote issues than party affiliation. And they represent a bigger piece of the electorate than declared Democrats or Republicans.

But when it comes to important issues there is a “me too” factor that makes selection difficult. Everyone is for less debt, more security, and more and better jobs. Oftentimes the only difference on the big issues is one of time to get there, the path to travel, or some other nuanced difference. These issues are easily hijacked by the opposition in order to fuzz up differences. After all, you can claim to be a radical environmentalist, but we all want clean water and fresh air.

Enter the “wedge” issues. These issues uniquely advantage one party because the opposition cannot claim sympathy for the position without offending its base.

Republicans are using national security, immigration and Planned Parenthood this cycle as wedge issues to increase support. Democrats seem to be doubling down on inequality, student debt, a higher minimum wage and increased unionization, as their main distinctive issues.

What follows is an instructive lesson on seemingly difficult wedge issues: When opposing a Democrat-supported minimum wage hike the GOP is often painted as insensitive to low wages. Avoiding the issue gives Democrats the moral high-ground wedge.

This week Bernie Sanders bemoaned the fact that up to 50 percent of black youth are unemployed. Within a few sentences he called for a $15 starter wage. You don’t have to be a Harvard-trained economist to know that those black youth who are often without skills or experience are not going to be offered many minimum wage jobs starting at $30,000 a year plus benefits.

Raising the minimum wage polls well until respondents are told of its consequences. A recent ORC International poll finds that only 41 percent of Americans support a $12 minimum wage after they learn the consequences. Another recent poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found that three-quarters of U.S.-based economists, the majority of whom were self-identified Democrats, believe that a $15 federal minimum wage would reduce the number of jobs available.

Democrats also want to loosen federal restrictions governing marijuana. Yet they also want more funding for mental health. And the science is clear that youth smoking of pot causes irreversible loss of mental acuity. Plenty of opportunity to show the emperor has no clothes when the party presents their buffet of free stuff that is inconsistent with their other messages.

On the unionization front, Republicans should agree that people have the right to join or not join a union. Highlight how many Democratic proposals and Obama regulations trample on employee rights in order to achieve unionization at all costs. Democrats like policies that grease the wheels for unionization because they get a piece of the action from forced dues.

The best way for Republicans to address unionization issues is by supporting the Employee Rights Act (ERA). You don’t have to be anti-union. Instead be in favor of employee rights. This legislation, with eight reforms that average 80 percent approval across all demographics, is a GOP wedge issue. Despite its popularity, the Democrats are speechless. They can’t find a way to deny its value. Yet if they support it, the choke hold of the AFL-CIO on their campaign funding will get very tight. As for reasoned opposition to granting their members more on the job democracy? Crickets.

And speaking about appealing to independent voters, support for the ERA polls at 90 percent among nonaligned female voters. The legislation allows Republicans to take the moral high ground on workplace issues. After all, it polls better than Bernie Sanders’ or Hillary Clinton’s minimum wage hike. Leading Republican candidates, including Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie have all forcefully endorsed this wedge issue.

Republicans should now take their support for the ERA as well as their reasoned opposition to the minimum wage and present them in a broader workplace narrative that has an offense arc. When 80 percent of the public wants you to win the debate, you have a policy gold mine hiding in plain sight.