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The hidden strategy of the New Right

By Nicholas O. BerryNicholas O. Berry, professor of politics at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, was a candidate for the Iowa Senate in 1978. / February 10, 1982

Why have so many conservative candidates taken ''unpopular'' positions opposing abortion, the ERA, and gun control? They did so during the 1978 and 1980 campaigns in spite of polling data that unmistakingly placed them in a minority position. Recent Gallup polls, for instance, report that only 18 percent reject abortion under all circumstances, only 13 percent oppose the ERA, and only 3 percent want less restrictive laws governing the sale of handguns. The polls have been steady on these issues since the mid-1970s.

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It would seem that right wing candidates invited defeat by taking stands contrary to public opinion. In fact, it was the path to victory.

What polls fail to show is the strength of public opinion. The responses of the concerned and unconcerned count equally in polling. Only those deeply concerned with particular issues will actually vote on the basis of those issues.

So the question becomes: who were the people deeply concerned with abortion, the ERA, and gun control? With one minor exception, the answer turned out to be Democrats! But why would right wingers emphasize issues that primarily were of interest to Democrats? The answer provides the key to the entire strategy.

Democrats were not only the most concerned about these issues, they were divided into polar opposites on them. When the New Right raised these issues it captured the attention and interests of Democrats, who then raised these issues with their Democratic candidates. Where, they asked, did the candidates stand?

No matter what the Democratic candidates answered, they were bound to alienate a segment of their normal base of support. If they supported abortion, they would hold liberal women voters but lose many Catholics, Protestant fundamentalists, blue collar workers, and ethnic traditionalists. If they favored the ERA, they would again maintain the votes of committed liberals (both male and female) but lose the support of Protestant fundamentalists, ethnic traditionalists (both male and female) and rural residents. If they favored stricter control of handguns, they would keep the support of Eastern-urban residents, intellectuals, and college-educated liberals, but lose the votes of Southerners, the less educated, union members, and rural voters.

On the other hand, if Democratic candidates opposed all three issues they would alienate their traditional liberal base of support.

Notice that whatever stand Democratic candidates took they only succeeded in keeping a portion of their normal party supporters. They did not -- and this is crucial -- appeal to and lure away normal Republican voters. Republicans, being generally non-liberal, non-Eastern, non-Catholic, non-fundamentalist, non-manual worker, and non-Southern, cared less about these issues. The only exception was progressive Republican women. Here the polls show an erosion of their support for right wingers on the issues of abortion and the ERA. It was, the right wing judged, a small price to pay.

Overall, the key to the strategy was making social issues salient and then forcing a split between the social conservatives and social liberals within the Democratic electorate.

By dividing the Democratic base of support the New Right anticipated three benefits. The immediate benefit was to reduce voter turnout by alienated Democrats. Democratic candidates would alienate either social liberal or social conservative voters and these voters would stay home on election day rather than vote against their issues or against their party. The short-term goal was not to convince hordes of Democrats to support right-wing candidates or the Republican Party. Keeping them away from the polls would be sufficient to proportionately increase the right-wing vote. Barely 40 percent of the eligible voters voted in the 1978 congressional election and only 52 percent voted in 1980. With millions of Democrats staying home, both elections gave spectacular victories to the right.