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.
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.
Enlisting the support of single-issue pressure groups constituted a second immediate benefit to the New Right. Forcing liberal Democrats to take a stand gave clear direction signals to ''Right to Life'' groups, the Moral Majority, the National Stop-ERA, and the National Rifle Association. Their PACs campaigned extensively with their members, many of whom usually voted Democratic, to support candidates on the right.
For the third and more long-term aim, the New Right sought to induce voters to vote for issues and not for a particualr political party. They discovered that manipulating issues alone would realign American politics ideologically no matter what party emerged victorious. The New Right does not seek to capture a Republican Party which has proven to be unreliable. For example, it has never forgiven the Republican National Committee for failing to support the 1978 lobbying effort against the Panama Canal Treaties. The New Right wants to control public policy. In fact, the weaker both parties become, the more dominant the issues will be in determining elections.
If the New Right tied itself exclusively to the Republican Party it would strengthen that party, reinforce feelings of partisanship which would keep many social conservatives loyal to the Democratic Party, and negate the New Right's issues when Democrats were returned to power. It does not matter what party is in power, writes Richard A. Viguerie in his ''The New Right: We're Ready to Lead ,'' if the entire spectrum of politics can be shifted to the right. ''We must always be firm in putting principle before party,'' Viguerie insists. Ideological integrity and the electoral strategy for removing liberals depend upon faithfulness to issues.
Viguerie's direct mail operation helped George Wallace retire his 1972 presidential campaign debt. Wallace's appeal to Democrats on social issues such as busing, law and order, and a strong national defense proved that the Democratic constituency could be divided and that the New Right could work with conservative Democrats. It proved that on social issues a new majority of voters and PACs could be constructed. On economic issues, according to Viguerie, the New Right could only expect an average of 45 percent voter support.
There is little evidence liberal candidates understood what was happening to them in 1978 and 1980. They knew they were being hurt by the social issues. They wanted to keep talking about the bread and butter issues that created FDR's coalition in the first place.
Still unaware of the strategy that beat them, they are counting on economic difficulties to turn the conservative tide. But their opposition is already one step ahead. The New Right is currently conducting a series of meetings to shape a bold new strategy to keep social issues on top of the national agenda. Viguerie is confident of its prospects. With a brilliant track record of electoral management behind it, the New Right is fast emerging as the most dynamic and innovative political force in American elections.
The central question facing liberals is whether they can neutralize social issues and then forge up-to-date economic programs to restore a majority coalition. The ball is in their court.