Though they have moderated slightly, political polls of the past few weeks have shown a clear shift in favor of Barak Obama. This, coupled with a general tilt toward Democratic congressional candidates that has never been in doubt this election, has resulted in predictions about the historic nature of this election and the depth and duration of the change it could bring to the nation. For the most part I believe these pronouncements have been overblown; designed more to sell papers or advertisements than to make a thoughtful prediction about what could be in store for the country. Two recent items, however, have caused me to rethink the idea that a sweeping Democratic victory in this particular election does not represent a real and lasting change in the electorate.
First, there was the recent decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court making it the third state to legalize gay marriage. In past elections, similar court decisions have been a call to those opposing such unions to speak out, organize, rally, and generally affect the outcome of an election. Whether you agree that gay marriage should be legal or not is not the point here. This is an issue that has in the recent past mobilized a large section of the electorate in a highly visible way. It is clearly unable to do so this time around. Perhaps it is possible that the issue of gay marriage is really only a second-tier issue to what have been referred to as values-voters. That this time, the magnitude of the financial crisis has simply swamped this issue and deprived it of needed political oxygen.
The second item that caused me to reconsider though, deals with abortion. This is an issue that is absolutely foundational to those that care about it and I don't believe that any amount of financial turmoil could diminish it (perhaps this could occur, but the financial situation would have to approach cataclysmic proportions, a point we are not even close to yet). The item that struck me came up in the third Presidential debate. In response to a question about whether or not Roe v. Wade should be overturned, Obama said the following:
And it is true that this is going to be, I think, one of the most consequential decisions of the next president. It is very likely that one of us will be making at least one and probably more than one appointments and Roe versus Wade probably hangs in the balance.
Calling this throwing down the gauntlet doesn't do it justice. Not long ago it would have been nearly unbelievable that a major party candidate would present the choice in such stark terms to a national audience of millions with the election on the line. This type of language was reserved for the base and then tempered for consumption by those illusive voters in the middle during the larger national campaign. I am not sure it could have been any more clear if he had said that his administration would work to make unrestricted abortion a permanent part of the law of the land, and I am not sure it would change anything even if he had.
Neither of these items seem to have generated any new support for McCain. They have not awoken any slumbering portions of the public that see these as a clear and present danger, the way these issues have resounded in the past.
Several years ago author Thomas Frank wrote a book called What's the Matter with Kansas. His thesis was that the Republican party gets middle-income Americans to vote against their own economic interests by placating them with promises to address moral issues. Promises that then go largely unfulfilled, leaving the average voter worse off economically and with nothing to show for it. His analysis was wrong for the simple fact that unless you are a member of the Karl Marx fan club, it is not at all clear why economic concerns should trump all others. He was correct, however, that the Republican party's work on cultural issues has amounted to almost all talk.
The fact that the issues of abortion and gay marriage, which have been at the fore of the debates about culture over the past several elections, are failing to have any meaningful affect on this election might be a sign that voters have actually come around to Franks' way of thinking after all. Perhaps American voters have decided to cast their lot with whomever they think can deliver when it comes to their wallets. We can debate which party that might be, but the fact that economic concerns, above all else, appear to be driving voting decisions this time around, may be evidence of a real shift in the attitude of voters.