Expect a Gulf of Tonkin ploy

What topics will be highest on the issue agenda when polls are taken as the 2012 election campaigns unfold? It’s a terribly important question. Candidates and parties need to be prepared to address concerns that voters will have as they make their decisions. If the agenda is not lining up in such a way that it will benefit a single candidate or party, they may need to try to steer the issues in a different, more helpful direction. It’s time to start responding to reasonable expectations about the direction policies will take.

Two weeks ago in this space I suggested that the social issues, ignored in 2010, will once again burst forth as important catalysts in elections, particularly because of the salience they will hold for Republican primary voters. But any surge in the apparent relevance of social issues may wither once the primaries are over. Last week I speculated that fiscal issues related to the budget deficit and a potential shutdown of the government aren’t likely to become what pollsters refer to as one of “America’s most important issues or problems.” So what will be central to the 2012 electorate?

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We must necessarily start with the economy. As in 2010, the economy will be significant, but there are several solid reasons to doubt that it will be as important next time. First, many voters have finally decided that our economic travails are like bad weather—something out of our control—so they are less likely to see the economy as a political problem. Second, Obama and the Democrats will do everything possible to nurture those thoughts while simultaneously beating the drum on other issues to divert attention from the administration’s failures in righting the economy.

The biggest diversion is likely to be overseas. Some Democrat operatives are so embarrassingly excited about the tumult in the Middle East that it’s, well, an embarrassment. These shameless promoters of the president piously recount the importance of nonpartisanship in national security while they swap high-fives to celebrate what they hope will be a rally around the commander in chief. I fear a Gulf of Tonkin incident brewing all over again, and the Republicans must get ready to smoke it out. And Democrats should be careful in what they wish for. The national security ploy hijacked a weak Jimmy Carter’s presidency and it could do the same for a limp Barack Obama. Yet you can still count on an effort by Democrats to use foreign affairs to distract voters from the economy.

Another issue that keeps threatening to rise in the polls is healthcare. But my best guess is that this issue will continue to be relegated to second-tier status on the issue agenda. As with the economy, voters doubt there are real solutions. And the issue is so fragmented into its various permutations—access, affordability, equity, seniors, the poor, provider and insurer fraud, etc.—that no one knows where to focus our collective angst. By comparison, economic worries can at least spotlight jobs and employment.

Two other issues — immigration and gas prices — are apt to break into the queue in 2012. Immigration seems to be slowly climbing the agenda in the polls. Each party thinks that it might benefit from this rise. The Republicans see it as a foil in getting our budgets balanced and reclaiming jobs. The Democrats cynically use it as a whip to flog captive Latinos to turn out in ever higher percentages. So both parties will nurture the ugly topic. Fuel costs, as in previous instances of spikes in the price for gasoline, diesel, natural gas and home heating oil, can roil the polls. But we’ve never had gas price spikes at critical moments when voters are choosing candidates. We may finally have that chance in 2012. Stay tuned.


David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.