The GOP wins via a base with intense interest in elections

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In the June 30 column “The Incoherent Center of American Politics,” E.J. Dionne Jr. asked why Democrats don’t win more elections even though a clear majority of Americans are generally in line with their policies.

It boils down to “intensity,” according to Mr. Dionne, and he’s absolutely right.

Mr. Dionne reported a Pew Research Center poll found the Democratic Party and its positions enjoy the support of middle-ground, Democratic-leaning voters, which should constitute an electoral majority. However, while these voters might care about issues like abortion, gun control and health care, they’re not in-your-face fired up about them in numbers large enough to influence policy and to alter the political landscape. They might be concerned, but not enough to miss their child’s soccer game to attend a political rally.

The GOP doesn’t have that problem. Its supporters, while making up a minority of voters, care passionately about issues that concern them, and they deliver when and where it counts — in the voting booth on Election Day.

Historian Don Fehrenbacher called this a difference between an “interest” — “concentrated, practical and testily defensive” — and a “sentiment” — “diffuse, sporadic, moralistic and tentative.”

Gun control is a good example of this. Poll after poll shows a majority of Americans support gun control (albeit to varying degrees). Yet most gun-control measures are dead on arrival in Congress and most state legislatures. Why? Because gun control is a “sentiment” for most Americans. However, it’s most definitely an “interest” for supporters of the Second Amendment. They can and do make life politically miserable for officeholders and candidates who cross them — and they have the Election Day track record to prove it.

While sentiments drive polls, interests determine elections.


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