WASHINGTON, April 9, 2015 —There was no escaping the conversation about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) over the last few weeks.
From the time Gov. Mike Pence signed the bill into law, activists insisted the bill promoted discrimination and urged boycotts of the entire state of Indiana. Near-ubiquitous media coverage reinforced that narrative. Social media have turned the likes of Rihanna and Miley Cyrus into influential, if amateur, legal scholars.
This became exactly the type of issue that can deliver election victories for Democrats.
It’s not because the voting public agrees with the most vocal activists on the underlying issues. A Family Research Council poll released this week shows 81 percent of registered voters support the concept of allowing people to make up their own mind about same-sex marriage and how that should affect their business. Yet the high volume of discourse reveals there is a set of citizens uncomfortable with what they believe the Indiana law says.
Voters agitated by RFRA have self-identified as people who can be activated by gay rights issues – and possibly further identified as someone who doesn’t need much specific information on a law to form a rigid opinion. The Democratic National Committee understood this and sent waves of emails asking people to sign petitions opposing religious freedom laws. People can self-identify through online conversations and public social media posts, too, and one would expect that the DNC and their allies are paying close attention to those channels as well. Those voters will also be receptive to future messages painting Republican candidates as anti-gay during the coming election cycle.
Controversies like RFRA offer organizational opportunities to identify grassroots audiences sensitive to certain issues. In 2012, Democratic allies employed the broad umbrella of women’s issues, which encompassed abortion, equal pay, and contraception access, as an organizing point to pull support from young professional women. Inarticulate candidates like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock helped cement the idea that all Republicans held unscientific views on gender roles. It’s no coincidence that President Barack Obama enjoyed the support 55 percent of women voters during his re-election.
As Democrats look forward to next year’s congressional and presidential elections, RFRA is just one of three major issues that offer grassroots organizing potential.
Police Brutality and Race Relations
From last year’s protests in Ferguson, Mo., to this week’s shocking video of a fatal police shooting of an apparently unarmed man in North Charleston, S.C., the appropriate use of police force has remained a near-constant topic of conversation. More significantly, the string of white police officers involved in the deaths of black suspects makes this trend a conversation about race relations in America.
These discussions are important for a nation like the United States of America, whose history on racial tolerance is checkered at best. Yet enterprising campaign operatives will surely use such discussions for political gain. Without the prospect of electing (or re-electing) the first black president, the Democratic Party will need a source of motivation to maintain high turnout and support among black voters and others who hold racial equality as a key issue priority.
The idea of raising minimum wage enjoys 54 percent support, according to polling firm Rasmussen. Though not as flammable as RFRA or race relations, battles over minimum wage are frequent. Each state and even some cities have their own wage guidelines, so there are plenty of battlefields on which to fight.
For Democrats, these minimum wage battles offer an opportunity to raise the idea of wealth redistribution in a benign, broadly acceptable way. Voters who speak out in support of state or federal wage hikes will be more receptive when the next Republican candidate is accused of pandering to the super-rich.
While Democrats may be organizing around these issues, there’s no reason for Republicans to concede. There are two ways to answer these tactics.
The first is to neutralize the Democrats’ organizing by understanding the issues at play and having good answers when the reporters ask about them. When candidates answer questions about these topics, gaffes will give Democrats a chance to speak authoritatively to an excitable audience, so doing some homework would help. For example, GOP candidates should know they are going to be asked about RFRA, so they should prepare a good response that reaffirms their position while stressing inclusiveness.
The second answer, which is more effective, is to get on offense. The president’s suspect nuclear pact with Iran, Hillary Clinton’s shaky understanding of what “public records” are and the FCC’s net neutrality regulations each offer similar, if somewhat less intense, organizing opportunities. Each issue has a micro-audience of excitable voters receptive to Republican messaging.
Public interest can be fluid, so both sides will have to seize opportunities quickly as specific topics wax and wane throughout news cycles. But as previous campaigns have demonstrated, the side that wins is the side that figures out how to stay on offense. Whichever party is able to turn buzz-worthy issues into grassroots activism can expect a much clearer path to victory.