Guns, Abortion, Student Loans and Salience

I favor licensing of gun use and ownership on the model of drivers’ licensing and automobile registration, but I want to comment instead on the politics of gun control. In the wake of this latest school massacre, Democrats and a handful of Republicans may pass something, but it is unlikely they will get sixty votes for a measure that might actually curtail gun use. It’s a question of salience — and similar considerations apply to the politics of student loans and abortion.

You can get voters to tell you their opinions on a wide range of issues, but there are only certain issues on which a candidate’s stance might strongly influence their votes. For them, these issues are salient. If you want to know why Republican politicians are reluctant to vote for gun control measures, it’s not, as Democratic politicians will tell you, because of the “gun lobby” — the NRA is practically defunct — but because guns are a fighting issue for many of the downscale voters that have been drawn to the Republican party over the last half century.

I know this from talking to these voters over the years. Sure, guns are important for hunting, but they are also important for protecting home and family. They are part of a pantheon with family, faith, and nation that define who these voters are. Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini sums this up: “Gun policy is less about being beholden to the ‘gun lobby’ or gun industry money than about the fact that Republican voters are deeply committed to a pro-2A position.”

Abortion is a similar issue, but its salience varies according to where the issue stands in the courts. In the absence of any threat to overturn Roe v. Wade, many pro-choice voters might still vote for pro-life Republicans. But many pro-life voters would be loath to back a Democrat who favors abortion rights. That helped to account for the shift to the Republican column of pro-life Protestant evangelicals and conservative Catholics that began during the 1970s. But if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe v Wade this year, the issue is likely to become salient for pro-choice voters, particularly women, and make it more likely they will back Democrats.

I believe forgiving student loans is a similar issue. I don’t believe that if the Biden White House were to forgive $10,000 or more of student loans, Democrats would lose any potential votes over it. On the other hand, they would gain votes, particularly among the young, for whom it is a salient issue. I have seen this in interviews and in focus groups. You hear these experts explaining that only 30 percent of Americans have college degrees and that a small percentage of these have loans, but if you look at how many 18 to 25 are going or have been to college, it’s more than a majority. They also have parents who may be helping to repay these loans. Democrats, who are rapidly losing their hold among young voters, better think about this.

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