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Series III: Wedge Issues In The Democratic Primary, March 5, 2002

March 5, 2002

The role of issues in electoral outcomes is unsettled. Undoubtedly, they play a key role in many campaigns while just as certainly there are elections for which issues play little or no role. It has been estimated that in the average election about one in five voters are issue voters― meaning they are informed on particular issues, feel strongly about them, and vote on the basis of their knowledge and feelings. Roughly twenty percent of all voters can be decisive in a close election, and Pennsylvania statewide elections are typically close.

But what are the particular issues that these voters care about and will be voting on in this years gubernatorial election? While early polls have identified the economy, education and taxes as the main issues citizens want the gubernatorial candidates to discuss, there can be no doubt that before the campaign is finished, Pennsylvanias perennial wedge issues will emerge.

In the Democratic primary, many campaign watchers expect abortion and gun control to be those defining issues.  In fact, few Pennsylvania statewide campaigns end without these two notorious wedge issues emerging as part of the debate.

The campaigns of Ed Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia, and Bob Casey, the states Auditor General, will debate the wedge issues for two reasons.  First, because their positions on these issues are very different, and, second, because the interest groups that make up their support base will press them hard to do so.  The recent presence of the head of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League in Philadelphia to endorse Rendell is only the start of more wedge issue campaigning to come.

For the record, Rendell is pro choice on abortion rights and for gun control; he has advocated that cities sue gun manufacturers and for additional gun laws. Casey, on the other hand, is pro life and believes that current gun laws should be enforced more vigorously, but opposes new gun laws.

Given the strong likelihood of the emergence of wedge issues in the weeks ahead, what do we know about them in the context of the upcoming Democratic primary?
 

Abortion

Attitudes toward abortion are very stable among the Pennsylvania electorate. In fact, abortion attitudes have changed very little over the past half-decade or so. When considering the entire state electorate, about one in four voters are hard pro choice (they believe that abortions should always be legal), while about one in six voters are hard pro life (they think abortions should always be illegal). Among Democrats the hard pro choice support is somewhat higher, three in ten of the state's registered Democrats are supporters of the always legal position, while the hard pro life position is somewhat weaker only one in seven say abortion should always be illegal (see Table 2).

No aspect of the abortion issue is more important than the way it cuts geographically. Democrats who live in the southwestern and northwestern parts of the state are evenly divided on abortion, meaning about the same number favor as oppose unlimited access to abortion. Democrats, who live in the northeast and in the central parts of the state, and in Allegheny and Philadelphia counties, are advocates of the always-legal position by a two to one margin. Those Democrats who live in Philadelphias suburbs have by far the most liberal position on abortion; they prefer the always-legal option by a five to one ratio (see Table 3).
 

Guns

Just as with abortion, gun control has dominated the rhetoric of past statewide campaigns.  Overall, approximately two in five Pennsylvania voters strongly favor additional gun control laws, while about one in four strongly oppose the passage of any new gun control laws.   Democratic voters are much more likely to support gun control than Republicans, with nearly one half of all registered Democrats indicating they strongly support the passage of new gun control measures, but only one in six saying they strongly oppose them (see Table 5).

Regional differences among Democrats over gun control mirror to a great extent the patterns observed with abortion. Democrats who live in the southwestern part of the state are least likely to favor more laws regulating guns; they are about evenly spit between those who strongly oppose and those who strongly support gun control. Voters residing in the northeastern and central parts of the state strongly favor gun control by a two to one margin over those who would oppose it.

In Philadelphia, Allegheny, and the northeastern counties, the margin of those who strongly desire gun control is four to one. The four southeastern suburban counties  (Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester) again prove to be the home of the most liberal Democratic voters in the state, with an eight to one ratio of those who want stronger gun laws (see Table 6).
 

Implications for the election

This analysis reveals an extraordinarily skewed regional pattern among Pennsylvania Democrats.  Simply put, Democrats in southeastern Pennsylvania are by far the most liberal voters in the state with regard to abortion rights and the most restrictive with regard to guns, even ahead of Philadelphia Democrats on both counts. With regard to these two issues, there are two geographically separated Democratic electorates in Pennsylvania.  

How will these wedge issues that have such dramatic potential to define the candidates and divide the state, play out? Will the issues that everyone says they care about, particularly the economy, trump the wedge issues?  Or will the wedge issues be the primary means that voters have of deciding between two well-qualified candidates who have similar positions on the economy?

In some ways, the wedge issues look like they could help Rendell. The more important abortion and guns become as issues the more Rendell, the cultural liberal, will have his natural base in the southeast reinforced.

But pushing a cultural agenda is a double-edged sword for the former Mayor. He must expand his base beyond the southeast and Philadelphia if he hopes to win, and if the abortion and gun control wedge issues do become prominent his position on them could make it difficult for him to pick up support elsewhere in the state.

Caseys circumstances are the mirror opposite. The appearance of the wedge issues could make it all but impossible for him to cut into Ed Rendell's base in the southeast. And there are too many Democrat voters there to write it off.  On the other hand, the appearance of the wedge issues make it more likely that he can maintain his early support among voters in the West, a part of the state he must have if he is to win the primary.

Stay tuned. This is only beginning to get interesting.
 

This analysis was prepared by Berwood A. Yost, Director of Millersville University's Center for Opinion Research and G. Terry Madonna, Director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs.  The information contained in this analysis may be used with proper attribution.

Supporting Tables

Table 1. Pennsylvanians' Attitudes Toward Abortion, July 1998-October 2001

Response

July 98 (602 adults)

July 99 (651 adults)

Feb 00 (600 RV)

Oct 00 (550 RV)

April 01 (499 RV)

Oct 01 (504 RV)

Legal under any circumstance

23%

26%

23%

26%

25%

25%

Legal under certain circumstances

56%

54%

53%

53%

53%

52%

Illegal under any circumstance

17%

17%

20%

15%

18%

20%

Source:  Keystone Polls conducted by Center for Opinion Research, Millersville University
 

Table 2. Registered Democrats' Attitudes Toward Abortion, July 1998-October 2001

Response

July 98

July 99

Feb 00

Oct 00

April 01

Oct 01

Legal under any circumstance

27%

21%

24%

31%

32%

31%

Illegal under any circumstance

13%

14%

17%

13%

18%

17%

Source:  Keystone Polls conducted by Center for Opinion Research, Millersville University
Average Legal under any circumstance equals 29%, average always illegal equals 15%.
 

Table 3. Registered Democrats' Attitudes Toward Abortion by Region, Aggregated Data

Attitude

Philadelphia

Northeast

Allegheny

Southwest

Northwest

Central

Southeast

Always legal

40%

23%

27%

21%

22%

29%

44%

Always illegal

17%

14%

14%

18%

28%

16%

9%

Source:  Responses to the October 2001, April 2001, October 2000, and February 2000 Keystone Polls were combined to create the proportions listed above.  All surveys included registered voters.  Sample included 918 registered Democrats.
 

Table 4. Pennsylvanians' Attitudes Toward Gun Control, February 2000 -October 2001

Response

Feb 00 (600 RV)

Oct 00 (550 RV)

April 01 (499 RV)

Oct 01 (504 RV)

Strongly favor

41%

37%

41%

33%

Somewhat favor

19%

18%

18%

22%

Somewhat oppose

11%

15%

14%

15%

Strongly oppose

24%

22%

22%

24%

Source:  Keystone Polls conducted by Center for Opinion Research, Millersville University
 

Table 5. Registered Democrats' Attitudes Toward Gun Control, February 2000 -October 2001

Response

Feb 00

Oct 00

April 01

Oct 01

Strongly favor

48%

50%

50%

42%

Strongly oppose

18%

14%

17%

17%

Source:  Keystone Polls conducted by Center for Opinion Research, Millersville University
 

Table 6. Registered Democrats' Attitudes Toward Gun Control by Region, Aggregated Data

Attitude

Philadelphia

Northeast

Allegheny

Southwest

Northwest

Central

Southeast

Strongly favor

62%

50%

50%

27%

40%

39%

68%

Strongly oppose

13%

14%

14%

29%

18%

18%

9%

Source:  Responses to the October 2001, April 2001, October 2000, and February 2000 Keystone Polls were combined to create the proportions listed above.  All surveys included registered voters.  Sample included 918 registered Democrats.