What do voters feel about culture war issues?

ByKiara Alfonseca ABCNews logo
Wednesday, April 17, 2024

New culture war issues have steadily made headlines in recent years, with politicians nationwide putting identity-based issues at the center of their legislative agendas, political strategists told ABC News.

Despite their prevalence in the political arena, strategists say the question of whether these issues will be major motivators for the upcoming election remains unanswered.

What are the culture wars?

"Culture war issues aren't new, they're just different," said Alex Conant, a GOP political strategist who worked on Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign, in an interview with ABC News.

Different social ideologies have been pitted against one another in order to define America's identity for decades, political strategists told ABC News.

In the late 1900s and into the 2000s, some of the bedrock culture war issues were abortion, gay marriage, civil rights, and gun control, according to Democratic political strategist Jon Reinish. However, these issues are mainstream and largely popular: the majority of Americans are in support of abortion rights, gay marriage, civil rights, and gun control, Pew Research Center studies show.

Enter a new wave of culture war issues to put Republicans and Democrats at odds: anti-transgender policies; "woke"-ness; diversity, equity and inclusion programs; critical race theory; immigration.

Republican-backed anti-transgender state policies have largely been focused on restricting gender-affirming medical care for transgender people under 18, banning transgender girls from participating in girls' sports, and allowing teachers and state employees to use a trans person's given name or pronouns that match their sex assigned at birth instead of their preferred name or pronouns.

Democrat-backed state policies have enshrined access to gender-affirming health care, implemented anti-discrimination policies in schools and workplaces for LGBTQ people, and more in response to conservative-led efforts.

When it comes to education, some Republican legislators are proposing or implementing restrictions on classroom content and discussion - largely based on the topics of race and the LGBTQ community, or topics seen by some as "divisive," like critical race theory (CRT). Some of these laws also target diversity, equity and inclusion programs (DEI) in K-12 schools, higher education and the workplace.

Democratic state and local legislators have instead aligned themselves in opposition, implementing programs and policies to promote access to diverse content and programs.

Immigration, which Democratic strategist Basil A. Smikle argues is a part of U.S. culture wars, will be another centerpiece of the 2024 election.

Border security was at the center of Donald Trump's successful 2016 presidential campaign, energizing his supporters against what's been dubbed a "border crisis," as border states face sometimes hundreds of thousands of migrant encounters. Biden has campaigned opposite Trump, promising to cut controversial policies implemented by the former president, including COVID-era migrant expulsion practices like Title 42.

However, Biden has since said he's open to reforms to asylum laws and other changes to border policy. According to the Migrant Policy Institute, Biden has taken more than 500 actions on immigration in his presidency thus far.

Reproductive rights is a bedrock culture wars issues that continues to be front and center for people across the country.

Trump and Republicans have long championed Trump's role in ending Roe v. Wade's guarantees to nationwide abortion access. Several Republican-led states have since ceased nearly all abortion services, while Democrats have moved to codify abortion and reproductive rights on the state level.

Will these issues move the election?

"They have a checkered history in terms of actually swaying elections," said Reinish.

Strategists say that some culture war issues - like anti-transgender policies, DEI and CRT - don't appear by themselves to be key overall issues for voters.

"It's not really registering maybe as it had in the past," said Robert Blizzard, a GOP pollster who previously worked for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. "I think it's just simply being crowded out by problems that families are actually facing on a day-to-day basis, like inflation, rising costs, the border, crime."

Political strategists say these issues are all about animating the base: "They're really talking to their own base, that's gonna be their bread and butter," Conant said.

For independent voters in particular, politicians who focus on culture wars issues are "going to alienate voters across the board," said Democratic pollster Zac McCrary in an interview. In a focus group among independent voters, McCrary found that "they're just not paying attention to that."

"Voters always ask themselves, 'what does this have to do with my family, my job, my home, my prospects as an American,'" said Reinish, who argues that culture war terms like CRT and DEI are fad issues that can be harder to understand.

The top general concerns for voters continue to be strengthening the economy and lowering costs across the board, strategists say, and Pew surveys show.

However, reproductive rights and tackling immigration are among the issues that are top of mind for voters, according to Pew. Improving education also is on the top of voters' minds, but, according to Pew, the conversations around schools are nuanced regarding not just content on culture wars issues but parental involvement, the impact of COVID-19 on learning, and more.

Campaigns with culture wars at the center

Some say Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' failure on the national stage as a Republican presidential candidate may have been his overwhelming association with his war on "woke," with Trump claiming "half the people can't even define [woke], they don't know what it is," at an Iowa event.

"DeSantis staked his entire campaign political messaging-wise, legislatively on the very concept of anti-wokeness. Ask Ron DeSantis how that went for him," said Reinish. "He's the most prominent example that was widely unsuccessful."

Conant argued: "DeSantis didn't work out too well -- it was telling that in the last several debates he didn't even mention the word 'woke.' It went from being what made him a national star" to being his weakness, he said in an interview.

However, others say several factors besides the culture wars campaign went into DeSantis' downfall.

"I think the presidential primary was much larger than just that type of stuff," said Blizzard. "Trump was also doing really well with evangelical voters. He was doing well with economic conservative types," said Blizzard.

Conant points to Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's win three years ago as proof that cultural issues can mobilize moderate voters, since Youngkin was a warrior against school content on racial issues and critical race theory (CRT). However, the Virginia legislature was later captured by Democrats in last year's election.

In Kentucky, transgender identities became a hot button issue in the governor's rare: Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear bested Republican Kelly Craft in the deep red state. Craft railed against "woke" policies and had said that if she was elected, "we will not have transgenders in our school system," according to the Associated Press.

Though the longevity of new culture war issues is yet to be determined, Blizzard and Smikle don't believe political battles over cultural issues are going away any time soon.

"Every kind of topic creates a new issue that the right and the left are battling over," said Blizzard.

Smikle adds, "This is also a proxy for concerns around change and diversity -- the diversification of our nation ... You're gonna have to figure out where the next battleground will be."

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