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Lessons from the Wendy Davis Disaster

It's foolish to build a political campaign around social issues

The image above is from a protest against conservative Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was accused by those liberal critics of focusing on abortion-related issues instead of the economy. Funnily enough, the same slogan could be used against Wendy Davis, the failing Democratic candidate for Texas governor, who, according to Michael Brendan Dougherty, is learning that you can’t build a successful political campaign around social issues. Excerpt:

Davis was an obscurity in the Democratic Party before her 2013 filibuster of abortion regulations that threatened Texas clinics with closure. Fascination with her shoes exceeded that normally given to the Roman Pontiff‘s footwear. The money poured in. Here was a national figure for the moment, a Joan of Arc ready to win the War on Women.

Alas, social issues are not enough. Polls show that Attorney General Greg Abbott, an anti-abortion Catholic, is attracting as much or more support from Texas women as Wendy Davis.


I’m a social conservative through and through. I think that social issues are legitimate political issues, and that it is important to debate them. But social issues are rating near the bottom of voter concerns heading into the 2014 election. Abortion and other social issues rarely rate more than a few percentage points above zero when Gallup polls voters on their concerns. It turns out that the Republican implosion on social issues in 2012 was not a prelude to Democratic triumphs on the same.

The whole thing is here. 

About Davis, I haven’t been following this race at all, but I was struck the other day transiting through the Houston airport by the cover of Davis’s campaign memoir, which I passed by on a bookstore display:


I found this title jarring, in this sense: it struck me as a sentiment that would appeal to women only, and, frankly, only a certain kind of woman. I see what Davis is getting at, but the phrasing does not convey fearlessness. Now that I see from MBD’s report that Davis is running about even with her pro-life male opponent among women, I feel that my instinct about Davis’s failure to connect with many Texas women is confirmed.

A couple of things here. First, it annoys me to no end when conservatives promote themselves and their candidates as “real Americans.” The liberal version of this involves promoting themselves and their candidates as “real women” (or, much less openly, “real [minority group].” Of course it’s insulting, but more than that, it can lead those who embrace that rhetoric to blind themselves to the reality of the electorate and its concerns. Wendy Davis is associated with a national pro-choice “Stand With Texas Women” campaign. It turns out that about half of Texas women are standing with her opponent.

Second, as a social conservative, I hate to admit it, but MBD is right: social issues matter a whole lot to a subset of liberals and conservatives, but most of the public doesn’t really care. (Environmentalism is like this too; it polls very low on the general public’s political priority list.) I vote primarily on social issues, but I’m much less likely to do that than I was in the past. This is in part because I no longer believe that politics is capable of addressing the core of our social and cultural problems, but it’s also — and relatedly — because I am much less willing to sign off on hawkish foreign policy as an acceptable cost for getting social conservatives into office. War is a social issue too. When you see how going to war affects the families and communities left behind, you understand that.

Same deal with economics.



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