WASHINGTON — What counts as "winning on the issues" depends on who does the math. Democrats calculate whether a majority of the American public agrees with them on each issue. Republicans work to win over a smaller audience – those who care enough to let the issue decide their vote.
The distinction is significant. In 2004, a majority of the country was pro-choice. But a majority of those who let a candidate's stance on abortion determine their vote were pro-life. Republicans lost the issue with the public, but still won the abortion vote – and strengthened their majority.
For Republicans, last cycle's abortion vote is this cycle's immigration vote. Most voters have weak anti-immigration sentiments, but the 9 percent who vote solely on this issue hold strong anti-immigration atti-tudes. This group prefers Republican congressional candidates by a 37-point margin.
Republicans emphasize issues on which they perceive an advantage among those who let the issue decide their vote, which is why they played up moral values during the 2004 election. This year, Democrats can beat Republicans at their own game. Even in an environment of public division over the right course for our troops, Democrats can win on the Iraq war and devote more attention to such issues as energy policy, where they hold an advantage.
By a 6-point margin, a majority of the country wants to stay the course in Iraq, but those who say Iraq is their top concern favor phased redeployment by a 22-point margin. These voters prefer Democratic candidates by a 45-point margin.
Democrats can strengthen this advantage further. While 19 percent of likely voters consider Iraq their most important issue, another 13 percent say it's their No. 2 issue. If Democrats elevate Iraq from secondary to primary importance for those voters, their lead in the polls will grow.
Many voters list the price of gas as an important consideration, but only 6 percent make it paramount in their decision. That number swelled in August, when gas prices topped $3 per gallon. "Reducing dependence on foreign oil" became the top national security consideration for 42 percent of voters, and Democrats got a boost in the polls.
Though gas prices have fallen substantially since then, energy issues have lingering potency: 38 percent of voters still name energy issues as important. Democrats could raise this subject from merely important to vote-deciding for large numbers of voters – and there is evidence that some are doing so.
As Republicans have long recognized, the attitudes of the general public on any given topic are irrelevant. Instead, they focus on the distribution of opinion among those who feel passionately about a particular issue, allowing the GOP to shore up votes from conservatives without worrying about a broader backlash.
Democrats can steal this page from the Republican playbook. By focusing more on voters that act primarily on the issue, Democrats can neutralize the Republicans' best strategic maneuver and put them in the uncomfortable position of playing defense in the game they invented. And that's a winning strategy no matter how you do the math.
• Amy Gershkoff is a senior associate at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, where she provides strategic political advice.