'It's about perception': Wedge issues in Washington dominate how state candidates campaign

Nothing resonates with Americans like a tax cut.

Or so Georgia House Rep. Ron Stephens thought.

In April. Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law House Bill 1437, which lowered the state's individual income tax from 5.75% to 5.49% starting in 2024 and to 4.99% in 2029. Stephens expected a celebratory shockwave.

The cut was quickly pushed out of the headlines, though, when word leaked that the U.S. Supreme Court intended to overturn Roe v. Wade. A discussion about tax policy was drowned out by the outlook for abortion rights.

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Participants block an anti-abortion counter protestor during an abortion rights rally in Johnson Square.
Participants block an anti-abortion counter protestor during an abortion rights rally in Johnson Square.

“Social media and the press won't pick up on the smaller things,” Stephens said. “We did an income tax cut and you would think that would get the headlines. We've never done that in the history of Georgia. But issues like abortion, these things that have nothing to do with day-to-day life for the people, is what grabs the headlines.”

Stephens' experience is a familiar political reality these days. Sensational issues that have long commanded attention in Washington, D.C., such as abortion, gun control and immigration, have increasingly become a focal point for state and municipal governments. The mantra of local politics - to get deals done for the betterment of constituents - is no longer foremost in the minds of elected leaders, especially at election time.

Decades of nationalization in Washington has absorbed voters into casting their ballots based on polarizing issues. Candidates have responded by gravitating toward the screaming headlines while in session and key in on them when election season rolls around.

“It is the balkanization of media platforms that has rewarded sensationalism and hateful rhetoric,” said former congressional staffer and political consultant Brian Robinson. “We are in a competition for likes and clicks. And look, what the consumer is getting is what the consumer is choosing. And people say that they don't like the negative stuff but the market would adjust to that if that was true.”

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What's your issue? Topics meant to drive voter turnout

For many voters, who to vote for comes down to the party designation next to their name on the ballot. Convincing those voters to go to the polls is the top priority for most candidates.

USA TODAY Georgia journalists identified the social issues that hopefuls are talking about on the campaign trail and explored how those topics might impact turnout.

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A woman speaks at the Stop Gun Violence initiative March 27.
A woman speaks at the Stop Gun Violence initiative March 27.

The birth of nationalization

Nationalization dates to the days of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, but it was former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who set things in motion almost 30 years ago during the 1994 midterms.

Since then, the landscape of nationalization has grown ever more contentious.

Gingrich introduced his "Contract with America" a few weeks before the 1994 midterms. The proposal pledged to transform Congress to include welfare reform and tax cuts, and the narrative contributed to what is termed the "Republican Revolution," with the GOP seizing control of the Senate and the House and making big gains at the state level as well.

The tactic became a winning campaign blueprint for the future.

"That was a big deal," said Stephens. "And most importantly, it kept a lot of Republicans from riding the fence. So there was a method to the madness. He would not let them back out."

Participants hold signs during an abortion rights rally in Savannah.
Participants hold signs during an abortion rights rally in Savannah.

Nationalization of politics became more entrenched with widespread adoption of the internet. The web was - and is - a powerful marketing tool for candidates. In 2008, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain squared off in a run that eventually led to the election of the country’s first Black president.

Throughout his campaign, Obama leveraged social media channels, such as Facebook, to reach voters. The strategy helped Obama form a connection with the electorate, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

Daniela Rodriguez asks a question about immigration and migrant farm workers at a campaign rally for Democrat candidate Stacey Abrams.
Daniela Rodriguez asks a question about immigration and migrant farm workers at a campaign rally for Democrat candidate Stacey Abrams.

“More than half the adult population were online political users in the 2008 election…online Obama supporters took part in a wider range of online political activities—from posting their own thoughts and comments about the election online to going online to volunteer for campaign activities or donate money,” the Pew study report read.

Obama's team continued to utilize the internet once he won office. Early in his second term, the then-president's stance on immigration reform dominated the online conversation. By then, though, opponents had become web savvy as well.


In 2013, in response to an Obama Facebook post that read, “The time is now – show your support for immigration reform,” a detractor wrote, “NOBAMA.” Another wrote, “Distrust and lies are sinking Obama,” complete with a list of his approval rating based on certain issues, such as the attack on the U.S. embassy Benghazi, Libya in 2012.

During a rally in Perry last year, former president Donald Trump told the crowd, “Having her [Abrams] I think might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know the truth.” It is that kind of jaw-dropping statement that may give Democrats the advantage and be used in future headlines to show how politicians like Trump focus on conflict-ridden topics.

Video of his comments were posted to YouTube by Forbes News and one person responded by saying, "He probably just lost my vote in the primary. We don’t have time for stuff like this in Georgia," referring to Trump should he run in the 2024 presidential election. The internet gave the public a voice beyond the ballot box.

“I can’t believe a Republican ex-president would do that,” said Stephens. “He was so mad at Kemp because he would not break the law and overturn the election, which he did not have the authority to do anyway. I know it was off the cuff but you do not say that when you are at the top of the Republican ticket.”

Over the last decade, social media has become an increasing force in both news delivery and the sharing of ideological views.

When Roe v. Wade was overturned this summer, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams responded on Twitter by saying, “I am appalled. Enraged. Undaunted & ready to fight back.”

Abortion has been one of the most debated topics in Washington and the divisiveness trickles all the way down to the state level where there is little-to-no bipartisanship.

It is a subject voters and politicians like Abrams stand firm on. Kimberley Tecklenburg, assistant political science professor at Georgia Southern University, said it would be nearly impossible for Abrams to undo Kemp’s ruling, although she tweeted in May that she will, “Defend the right to an abortion and fight for reproductive justice.”

“It would take a lot for her to challenge that, but it signals to voters where you stand on issues, even if there's not much you can do about it,” said Tecklenburg.

Stephens asserts that the obsession the public shows for wedge issues in Washington distracts state elected officials from the nuts-and-bolts work of government.

Sometimes it comes down to instincts – people are drawn to what makes them tick.

“All social issues don't create any jobs,” said Stephens. “So I do my best to try to stay away from those. They're social issues, but those are the things that make the press, so you have to talk about. And a lot of times, it's about perception.”

The consumer drives extremisms

Politicians are more divided than ever, but it is the voter that has forced them to harp on dividing subjects, said Robinson, the political consultant.

Donnie Bell, assistant professor at Savannah State University, said politicians have two goals: to raise money and win the election.

“Condemning Washington without providing solutions is a common strategy that allows legislators to grow wealth and win reelection without getting anything accomplished,” said Bell.

Young voters such as his students are well-versed on politics and are eager to discuss issues they see in the headlines.

“They understand what makes a source credible, and they are able to detect false narratives and misinformation,” said Bell. “If parties and candidates are able to present a coherent message that captures the emotions of young people, they will turn out and vote.”

What’s next?

Robinson said many politicians would be happy to address everyday issues that matter, such as the water and sewer system or helping small businesses thrive. Legislators enjoy talking to folks in the district they represent and many do try to fix those issues in the assembly.

But Robinson said those are not things that will drive people to the polls. Politicians have to stay laser focused on wedge issues so voters are not wavering on their decision come election day.

“Most of the people that I've worked with over the years who want to run for state office are already involved in their community, so they kind of understand the stuff that matters,” said Robinson. “But that's just not the stuff that you campaign on.”

He went on to say politics is all about choices and drawing contrast on certain subjects.

“We'll always have wedges issues,” said Robinson. “I get hired to speak to different groups and people are always complaining about negative ads, and I'm like, okay – fine. But you are wrong because you all are choosing it. Voters are sending to Congress people that promise to never compromise. Voters are getting the product they bought.”

Latrice Williams is a general assignment reporter covering Bryan and Effingham County. She can be reached at lwilliams6@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Controversial national political issues drive state election campaigns