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What citizens don't ask political candidates

La Crosse, Wis - If you follow Wisconsin's race for governor only by watching the television ads, you might believe voters care primarily about gun control, the death penalty, abortion rights, stem cell research, immigration, and the proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage.

But when you spend time talking with ordinary citizens about problems that matter most to them, you get a dramatically different picture. Their priorities in this election are much more basic and consistent with what public opinion polls tell us: They want to know what the candidates will do about taxes, the economy, healthcare, and education.

That won't stop campaigns and independent groups from focusing on what they believe are the "wedge" issues, which are hot-button topics that split traditional political support bases. But those are not necessarily the messages most voters want to hear.

My conviction on this point comes from working with a group of citizens, selected to reflect a cross-section of Wisconsin, as part of the "We the People/Wisconsin" civic journalism project. Those citizens have twice asked questions of the candidates for governor in live, televised debates, most recently the Oct. 20 debate at Logistics Health, Inc. in La Crosse. Each time, they had the chance to ask about the wedge issues; each time, they chose not to do so.

My role in the We the People/Wisconsin exercise was to moderate discussions in which citizens set their priorities and honed their questions. The process began in Stevens Point in July, when nearly 30 citizens spent the day reviewing the results of a statewide issues poll and hearing from a parade of public-policy experts. It continued Sept. 15 at the first We the People/Wisconsin debate at GE Healthcare in Waukesha, where the topics were taxes, government, and the economy.
Grab bag

In La Crosse, 17 of those citizens met one last time to question Gov. Jim Doyle, the Democratic incumbent, and U.S. Rep. Mark Green, the Republican challenger, about health care, education, and any other "quality of life" issues that made the group's cut. In essence, it was a grab bag, and virtually any issue outside taxes and the economy was fair game.

A week or so before the debate, a list of 40 citizen questions was put up for a vote. The panel of potential questioners narrowed the list of possible on-air questions to about 15. Ninety minutes before the cameras went live, the citizens met on last time to narrow their list to no more than 10 - the expected limit during a debate that was scheduled for just under an hour.

Out of the mix came three questions about healthcare, three on education, one on crime, one on Wisconsin's moratorium on nuclear power, one on tort reform, and one on clean government.

The citizens had heard both candidates talk extensively about stem-cell research during the July "boot camp" in Stevens Point, so there wasn't much need to hear more. Gun control was mentioned once in July but never again. The death penalty never really came up; neither did abortion. Immigration was discussed, but no proposed question made the citizens' final list.

The proposed ban on gay marriage and civil unions was debated, and with a fair amount of passion, but at the end of the day it fell just short of the "on-air" list. That wasn't because the group expressed much of a sentiment about the amendment one way or the other, but because they concluded it was an issue for voters to decide, not the candidates for governor.

Ordering bread and butter

Granted, this was only a focus group of voters. But their choices mirrored what public opinion polls show when citizens are asked what issues are most important to them. Repeatedly, the citizen questioners in the We the People/Wisconsin debates had the chance to talk about "wedge" issues; repeatedly, they chose to stick with bread-and-butter questions that mattered most to them, their families, and their neighbors.

It may not make for a riveting television ad or a controversial talk show, but it's what people want to know. The candidate for governor who comes closest to answering those bread-and-butter questions in the closing two weeks may be the one who brings home the whole loaf.

Recent articles by Tom Still

Tom Still: 300 millionth American no cause for eco-alarm

Tom Still: Tommy Thompson's Iowa strategy isn't far-fetched

Tom Still: State should keep open mind on nuclear power

Tom Still: Candidates' sparring over jobs focuses debate on right issue

Tom Still: Biomedical Alliance about more than stem cells

Tom Still: Who's right about Wisconsin - CDW or RedPrairie?

Tom Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He was a co-founder of We the People/Wisconsin and serves on its board of directors. Go to <> to watch streaming video of the Sept. 15 and Oct. 20 debates.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


Rich Eggleston responded 8 years ago: #1

It's good to hear that the typical Wisconsin citizen doesn't want to hear politicians talk about wedge issues. But it's not surprising. Wisconsin's traditional values include a mind-your-own-business (and I'll mind mine) ethic.

There's a kind of Machiavellian hubris associated with exploiting wedge issues that should turn off right-thinking people of every political stripe.

The political capital to be gained by exploiting wedge issues is derived from solidifying the 50 percent (or 51 percent or 49 percent) of the politician's base, at the expense of writing off the votes of the 50 percent (or 51 percent or 49 percent) of the people on the other side of the wedge. This is cynical and contrary to the ideals of representative democracy.

There are certain social differences -- most of them, in fact -- between us that government has no business in.

I don't want to know what a politician thinks about gay marriage, civil unions, abortion, illegal immigration or a lot of other issues because I don't think a politician has any business there. There are plenty of job openings in the ministry and in social work, and you don't have to get elected to get hired.

It would be interesting if the next round of We The People exercises invited politicians to listen to citizens, and not talk back.

Rich Eggleston

RAB responded 4 years ago: #2

Iwould like to hear explanations for all the political rhetoric ie: what constitues small business? What happened to the lower income class that so many of use are in? We used to be called working poor! Why does the IRS charge interest anf late fees comparable to the mobs juice loans? Did you ever notice that if you are in a sparsely populated region of the state that you don't see any politicians! Is that because they know there are no enough people to sway a vote..Did you ever notice how many seniors are losing or giving up their home that they worked for all their liives because costs of utilities,taxes, etc. keep rising with no help for them!!

Eagle River

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