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David Hill: The return of the wedge issue

In February, the website Democratic
Underground.com published an advisory to its aboveground readers. “Minimum wage and marijuana initiatives really bring out voters. So do divisive issues such as reproductive rights. It is not too late to start an initiative, but one has to act fast given the time frame.”

It appears the clear message was received in states like Florida, where Democrats are pushing a medical marijuana measure to drive turnout.

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To their credit, Democrats are becoming transparent about their aims. “I wish that it didn’t take medical marijuana on the ballot to motivate our young voters,” confessed Ana Cruz, former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, to The Associated Press. “But listen, we’ll take it any way we can get it.”

Worried that even pot might not motivate apathetic younger voters, there is a massive absentee voting effort to get their ballots.

“We want to be able to have our stereotypical, lazy pothead voters to be able to vote from their couch,” admitted Ben Pollara, campaign manager of a group seeking to boost Florida turnout.

When it comes to ballot issues, some states have already played the marijuana card, the gateway drug to higher turnout, so they are graduating up the drug chain to the meth or heroin of issues: fracking. That’s where Colorado is breaking bad.

Currently, the state’s title-setting commission is reviewing a boatload of “citizen” ballot proposals engineered to cripple oil and gas development in the state, masquerading under the guise of local control measures or set-back requirements. But make no mistake about it — these proposals are partisan and ideological measures designed as much to boost turnout in the gubernatorial and Senate races there as to enact policy. Colorado, like Florida, could also see a casino referendum that could boost turnout of Democratic constituencies.

Minimum wage is the new Democratic drug of choice in other states. Efforts have been underway this year to get minimum wage measures — by initiative or legislative referral — on the ballot in Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota. The Democratic-leaning Ballot Initiative Strategy Center reports that the minimum wage issue has increased turnout in midterm elections, and been popular with voters. “Since 1996, proposed increases have been on statewide ballots 15 times in 11 states — and all but two of them were successful.”

Other issues recently vying for turnout-boosting status across the country include class size proposals, transgender rights and malpractice.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be acknowledged that Republicans virtually invented the trick of driving turnout with “wedge issue” ballot measures focused on social issues like marriage and abortion and fiscal measure like tax-cutting. Republicans haven’t given up either. Some Iowa Republican legislators unsuccessfully attempted to get gun and marriage measures on that state’s ballot this fall. Right-to-work measures have been pondered in Oregon, Michigan (though by Democrats to undo GOP reforms enacted in 2013), Missouri and Ohio this cycle. In California, a pension-cutting measure has been floated.

Use of the initiative and referendum process to drive turnout has a broader implication for the political process, however. It solidifies tactics from the Karl Rove era, embraced by both parties, of concentrating electioneering on base voters, eschewing strategies designed to woo independents and flip weak partisans of the other party. Forget Blue Dog Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans; go after the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street crowd. Preach to the choir and give them what they want. Motivate them with red meat or whatever vegan fare the Occupy and Acorn-types feast on. Parties focused only or mostly on their base during an election then feel comfortable with the hyperpartisanship that fractures Congress.

It all starts on Labor Day with wedge-issue campaigns and will continue unabated through the State of the Union address and beyond.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.