Wedge issues may boost Obama’s prospects

Is President Obama trying to wedge his way to a second term?

The economy will doubtless be the overriding issue in November’s presidential contest, and Obama is hardly ignoring it. But a successful candidate appeals to all sorts of voters harboring all sorts of concerns, and the president and his backers appear to be using a pair of wedge issues to target two groups, Latinos and women, with messages grounded more in emotionalism than economics.

The issues — immigration and contraception — are hardly top-of-the-mind for most people, but each fits the mold of those typically used to pry voters away from a party or a candidate they might otherwise be inclined to support.

For Richard Nixon, the wedge issue was busing, as he tapped the racial resentment of working-class whites, particularly Southern Democrats, to help him win the presidency in 1968.

For Ronald Reagan it was abortion, used in 1980 as a way to attract social conservatives, who have been an important part of the Republican base ever since.

Illegal immigration, affirmative action, gun control and same-sex marriage have all been used by Republicans as wedge issues at the state and national levels, with varied degrees of success. Now it’s Democrats and Obama — sympathizing with women paying more for dry cleaning, playing consoler in chief to a woman impugned by radio’s Rush Limbaugh — who are pushing people’s buttons.

Speaking Friday at a women’s conference organized by his campaign, the president said the recent Republican debate over contraception was “like being in a time machine.”

“These are folks who claim to believe in freedom from government interference and meddling,” Obama said. “But it doesn’t seem to bother them when it comes to a woman’s health.”

Mitt Romney’s own maneuvering has made it possible.

Immigration is not a high priority for most Latino voters, as Republicans are quick to point out. Jobs and education are considered far more important. But tone matters. And by talking tough and taking a hard-line stance on illegal immigration during the GOP primary season, Romney has made it much more difficult to steer the conversation toward other issues he now wishes to discuss, such as the high rate of Latino unemployment.

“If he’s perceived as so antithetical to their community, they’re not even going to have that conversation,” said Matthew Dowd, the chief strategist for President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, which drew wide Latino support.

Similarly, some of the positions the presumptive GOP nominee took to appeal to social conservatives — he endorsed cutting off federal funding for Planned Parenthood and allowing employers to deny contraceptive coverage if it violated their moral convictions — have made it harder to pitch his preferred economic message to more moderate women, a vital constituency in November. Allies of the president have already begun targeted advertising, sending mail pieces reminding those women of Romney’s stance.

A wedge issue not only raises the issue at hand but can also serve another purpose: changing the subject, which is particularly advantageous in unsettled economic times or during an unpopular war.

“Whichever candidate is disadvantaged by the state of the war or the state of the economy will look for other issues they can talk about,” said D. Sunshine Hillygus, a Duke University professor and author of “The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Presidential Campaigns.”

“It’s a very deliberate strategy to refocus attention,” Hillygus said.

Obama is not ignoring the economy. To do so would seem out of touch, a perception that doomed President George H.W. Bush when he sought reelection during a similar time of economic anxiety in 1992. (That campaign yielded Democrat Bill Clinton’s famous slogan — “It’s the economy, stupid” — which Romney refashioned this week with a caustic twist: “It’s still the economy, and we’re not stupid.”

But with the economic recovery still shaky, immigration and contraception give the president, or at least his allies, a chance to talk about something else with audiences crucial to Obama’s reelection hopes.

The president is expected to win a majority of the Latino vote, as he did in 2008, but he needs more than that. A large Latino turnout is essential if the Democrat is going to carry the battleground states of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico and put Arizona in play, as his strategists hope.

If Latinos are convinced that the economy is slowly but steadily improving, then immigration and Romney’s perceived hostility toward the community is the spur that could drive turnout for Obama, said Fernando Guerra, a Loyola Marymount political scientist who has extensively researched the Latino vote.

Though Obama has disappointed many on the Latino left by failing to deliver on his promise of immigration reform, “clearly the Democrats talk about it in a tone that is much more appealing to Latinos than the way Republicans talk about it,” Guerra said.

Strategists for Obama hope to do more than just energize women supporters. They are convinced the positions Romney took in the primary season on issues such as birth control and healthcare access for poor women will not only complicate his attempted move to the middle but serve to drive some Republican women and GOP-leaning independents into the president’s camp.

That remains to be seen, but if so, it could hurt Romney in places such as Virginia, Colorado and Pennsylvania, all battleground states with large numbers of the suburban women that both candidates covet.

Wedge politics may seem a long way from the uplift of Obama’s 2008 hope-and-change campaign or, going back further, the message of healing and reconciliation that launched the young Illinois state senator’s political ascent with a galvanizing speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

But Obama has often been underestimated, or misconstrued, by supporters and critics alike. Though he has ideals and principles, and the eloquence to give them flight, he understands one thing: To get things done, you have to win.

Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.