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Greenfield: Going back to the well

Will gay marriage and flag burning rally the GOP base one more time?

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analysis

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- It's the political mega-theme of the moment: Republicans want to gin up their unhappy base for the midterm elections by pounding away on hot-button social issues, like gay marriage and flag burning.

Thus, the President's radio address last Saturday and his Rose Garden meeting Monday to back a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

Oh, let's ask: is it a plausible strategy? Has it worked in the past? Can it backfire?

Let's check it out.

In 2004, the issue was gay marriage. After the Massachusetts Supreme Court ordered the state to sanction same-sex marriages, 11 states voted to define marriage as one-man, one-woman. Ohio was one of those states, and the measure was credited -- or blamed -- for turning out enough social conservatives to give President Bush the state -- and thus the White House.

This year, six state have same-sex marriage bans on the ballot, but only one of them, Tennessee, has what can be called a remotely-competitive Senate race. (Arizona and other states may also put such a measure on the ballot).

It's hard to see this issue swelling conservative turnout in other states, unless ... well, hold that thought for a moment. While the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a constitutional amendment, it will likely fail by a wide margin in the full Senate, taking a good bit of steam out of the issue.

OK, how about the flag? It clearly packs an emotional punch. Back in 1988, the first George Bush roundly criticized opponent Michael Dukakis for not requiring Massachusetts teachers to lead kids in the pledge of allegiance, and trips to flag factories were regular parts of Bush's campaign day.

But, as for flag burning today, most Americans find the idea highly offensive, but it's more or less disappeared from the protest landscape. One protect-the-flag group has found a grand total of 33 acts of flag desecration in the last five years. And one computer search found only one such incident in the last year. This doesn't exactly qualify as a burning issue (yes, pun intended).

Now, we certainly have seen hot-button ballot issues affect elections in the past, In 1994, California Gov. Pete Wilson embraced Proposition 187, a crackdown on immigrants, as part of his successful re-election strategy -- although it has since cost Republicans heavily among Hispanics. And this year, one of the Democratic candidates for governor in California, Controller Phil Angelides, is embracing a ballot proposal to hike the tax on big oil companies.

But sometimes the ploy can backfire. In 1982, Tom Bradley backed a very tough gun-restriction ballot proposal and narrowly lost his bid for governor in part because of a huge turnout among gun owners.

But sometimes, hot-button issues can gain national traction without any political strategy, even if same-sex bans are not on the ballot in states with competitive Senate races. How? Well, suppose New York State's highest court decides there's a constitutional right to gay marriage, or more previously enacted bans are struck down in courts in other states. That could put the issue front and center again -- which is right where Republican strategists want it.

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