The Ballot Box

The Ballot Box: Wedge Issues

NBC Bay Area political analyst in this blog post examines wedge issues ahead of the presidential election

Candidates running for office require several tools to succeed. Some are obvious, such as an engaging personality, intelligence, the mastery of the issues, a campaign organization, a revenue stream of campaign contributions, and endorsements.

Some assets are not so apparent, such as a candidate’s ability to raise and use a wedge issue to help win office.

In everyday conversation, a wedge simply refers to something very hard like a rock or a chisel that splits or divides two equally hard materials.

In politics, a wedge issue is a potent political topic or concern raised by a candidate that has the ability to split the opposition because of the toxicity associated with it.

Wedge issues are particularly significant when there is an air of uncertainty in society.

In a close election, a candidate with the right wedge issue may actually use that split to attract support from a competitor. Along with the support he or she already has, the new-found backing may just be enough to carry the candidate to victory.

Wedge issues have been around forever, although some are much more obvious and penetrating than others.

In 1968, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon converted a disruptive summer of civil rights demonstrations and riots to a wedge issue, convincing many voters that his election would bring “law and order” to the nation’s streets.

In 1992, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton used a hard stand on welfare reform to peel off enough disappointed George W. Bush supporters to eek out a victory in an unusual three-person race.

Trump’s Wedge

In 2020, potential wedge issues abound but some may have more bite than others. For his part, President Donald Trump seems to have settled on the “Black Lives Matter” movement as the wedge with which he hopes to persuade a large cache of suburban voters to embrace his candidacy.

Trump has wrapped urban unrest about police brutality and social justice with Antifa, a loose set of ideas dedicated to anti-fascism, with particular opposition to far right ideologies and white supremacy. What’s happening now in the cities, he claims, will be happening in your neighborhood tomorrow unless “law and order” is brought to bear.

If successful, Trump’s wedge will move suburbanites from Biden’s calming call to heal a fractured society into Trump’s camp.

Biden’s Wedge

On the other side, Democrat Joe Biden has found his own wedge issue, COVID-19. He doesn’t blame President Trump for the emergence of COVOD-19, but rather the way the president has managed (in Biden’s eyes, mismanaged) the pandemic.

Biden’s COVID-19 wedge against President Trump has several elements—Trump’s lies to the public about the harm of the virus, his undermining of government researchers, and Trump’s refusal to use the power of the national government to bring COVID-19 under control. The result: more than 220,000 deaths, most of which, Biden says, could have been avoided.

If successful, Biden’s wedge will move some of those voters otherwise pleased with the pre-COVID economy under Trump into Biden’s camp.

Finding the Right pieces to the Puzzle

I’s important to remember that most people don’t vote for a presidential candidate because of his or her stand on X. Seemingly endless pieces of information, data, and values float into (and in some cases out of!) our minds when determining our vote.

But clearly, some elements stand out more than others, among them ethics, taxes, morality, intelligence, education, candidate experiences, race, religion and ethnicity. Successful wedge issues are designed to force their way into whatever value sets normally guide us and thereby supplant those considerations with a new, powerful decision-making factor.

The extent to which voters connect with wedge issues may well be the tipping point for the outcome in the 2020 presidential election. So, as you consider your presidential vote, you might consider whether a wedge issue is impacting your decision-making. It’s just another mystery in this behavior we call “politics.”

Next Week: A look at California’s statewide ballot issues.

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