Numbers Matter. But Tiny Groups Can Have Big Influence (Issue Landscapes Part 2)

In December of 2012, President Obama and congressional leaders were peering over a “fiscal cliff.” Without legislation, taxes would go up on January 1, 2013 for hundreds of millions of Americans when the previous administration’s tax cuts expired. Moreover, a series of scheduled spending cuts would take effect the same day that would further damage the economy’s sputtering recovery. Despite the acrimonious relationship between the Obama Administration and House Republicans after a bitter second-term election, the situation eventually forced a last-minute compromise to preserve the tax cuts for all but the highest-income Americans. The sheer number of people facing smaller paychecks on January 1 was a huge catalyst for action.

In a representative democracy, even an imperfect one, numbers matter. Elected officials need to convince just over half the electorate to support them in order to remain in office, and so they will generally pay attention when a policy idea is overwhelmingly popular or unpopular among their constituents.  However, policies don’t impact everyone equally, and the differences in how various groups of people experience policies can have an influence on policy outcomes. For example, a well-developed academic literature has studied circumstances where a minority of voters that cares deeply about a policy can drive an agenda against majority interests.

This post is the second part in a series about how advocacy organizations can navigate “issue landscapes.” The concept of an issue landscape ecompasses who is impacted by a policy, the intensity of their support or opposition to various solutions, their ability to organize, and their level of influence with policymakers. Understanding the issue landscape is critical to determining which tactics and strategies are more or less likely to help you advance your policy goals. This post will focus on how the number of people impacted by an issue affects the landscape. I write from the perspective of an advocate or organizer working on a particular issue and looking for near-term tactics appropriate to the landscape, recognizing that long-term movement building will often be required to overcome entrenched interests.  

Numbers in Action 

The fiscal cliff example above is somewhat extreme—rarely do advocacy organizations handle issues that threaten to immediately and directly impact hundreds of millions of people. However, having a clear majority paying attention to an issue can be a powerful political force, often in support of the status quo. For instance, I started this issue landscape series with the example of homeowners in high-cost cities whose preference for exclusionary zoning—which prevents new housing construction—routinely wins at the ballot box. On the other hand, shifting opinion can lead to shifting policy. As recently as 2004, a majority of Americans opposed extending legal equality to marry to same-sex couples and the Republican party used anti-marriage equality ballot initiatives to drive their base to the polls. A decade and a half later, opposition to LGBTQ+ rights received barely a mention at the 2020 Republican National Convention, marriage equality is the law of the land, and public opinion has shifted so dramatically as to make this a settled issue. 

Constituency groups and grassroots organizations already understand the power of numbers, and that their ability to mobilize group members for or against a policy can be highly influential. Protests, rallies, and lobby days are all tactics that can be used to demonstrate numerical—and implicitly, electoral—support. For instance, in many cities, public-sector unions have a big influence on policy outcomes. Their membership, get-out-the-vote organization, and influence among the electorate mean union endorsements in local elections can make or break candidates, and shapes local policy

Advocacy groups without a natural constituency will not have the muscle that grassroots organizations and unions have in this area. However, there are still tactics available to demonstrate numerical support for a cause. Offering a policy idea to a policymaker along with polling demonstrating its popularity can help encourage the leader to pursue legislation. As with many examples throughout this series, the concept of “issue framing” is vitally important. There is an extensive academic literature on how the narrative or frame around a policy issue generates support or opposition for an idea. An example from the opinion shift on marriage equality shows this dynamic in action (among many other factors). After losing a series of ballot initiatives framing the issue around an individual’s “right” to marry, progressive advocates—guided in part by opinion polling conducted by Third Way—realized that framing the issue around the love and commitment of same-sex couples was a much more effective way to persuade voters. The narrative shift helped turn the tide, and several ballot initiatives ended in favor of marriage equality after proponents began using this “values-based” framing. 

Finally, the design of policy ideas themselves can be a tool for both grassroots and policy organizations. Senator Bernie Sanders, among others on the left, has advocated for universalist policies through proposals like free college for all, universal childcare, or Medicare for All. Sanders’s theory is that programs such as Social Security and Medicare are popular because they are designed to benefit almost everyone. While some well-off Americans receive benefits they don’t need, durable political support keeps these policies in place in a way that programs targeted to very low-income people like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) lack. I’m not trying to settle the well-trod debate over universal vs. targeted programs, but merely naming the tactic the universalists are deploying by explicitly seeking to have numbers on their side. 

Diffuse vs. Concentrated Interests

Of course, numbers are not everything. Some issues impact a wide range of people, but do so at very different intensities. In his book The Logic of Collective Action, Mancur Olson, Jr. argues from an economic perspective that the high costs of collaborating among large groups of people may keep them from overcoming the advocacy efforts of smaller, intensely organized interests. A classic example is an attempt to a close military base. Assume for a moment that American taxpayers as a general matter would prefer to pay less for military bases by maintaining fewer of them. Closing one military base may save the typical taxpayer only pennies per year, a change the average person is not likely to notice. In contrast, a base may be the main source of jobs in a particular congressional district. That community and its congressional representative will advocate strongly for keeping those jobs, as will other congressional representatives who have bases in their districts. The much larger number of voters who would prefer fewer military bases do not have as powerful a political incentive to overcome the opposition and cut funding, so the bases remain open. 

While concentrated interests are difficult to overcome, voters, activists, and political organizations have found solutions. The problem of closing military bases was solved by creating an independent panel of technical experts who recommended a list of closures to Congress, which could accept or reject the entire package. Some have suggested expanding the use of similar commissions to other policy areas. The idea has not caught on, partly because concentrated interests and their congressional allies know that setting up such a commission would cede power to other decision-makers. 

More promisingly, civic organizations and networks of policy advocates are sometimes able to overcome narrower interests to enact policy that a diffuse majority of voters would prefer. Environmental regulation is a good example. Owners of a hypothetical factory stand to gain a great deal from continuing to spew pollutants unmolested. The pollution spreads widely throughout a region, increasing the statistical likelihood of asthma cases and early deaths, but the impact on any one individual is tough to measure. Olson’s collective action framework would suggest that the factory would be allowed to carry on polluting, yet major federal legislation like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act demonstrate activists can overcome organizational challenges inherent in diffuse, but widely shared interests. In general, I think most advocates should be aware of the challenge of concentrated interests, but in most cases advocates will already be doing the organizing, media relations, lobbying, and policy development needed to overcome collective action problems. 

The Case of the National Rifle Association

Discussing how political incentives help minority groups win practically requires some mention of the National Rifle Association (NRA), whose influence goes beyond that explained by collective action. Every yeary over 35,000 people die from gunshot wounds (most are by suicide). Large majorities of Americans support expanded background checks, a national red flag law allowing a judge to remove guns from a person who poses a risk to themselves or others, mandatory gun licenses, and the elimination of high-capacity magazines. Yet the NRA has been singularly effective in stopping widespread adoption of these policies. Advocacy groups such as March for Our Lives and Moms Demand Action have risen up in the past few years, but continue to face roadblocks. The reasons for this are complex. Partly this results from the intensity of support and resources of the NRA’s membership. Unequal representation in the Senate plays a role as well, where a minority of voters sympathetic to the NRA enjoy outsized representation. The American system of government provides numerous opportunities through its checks and balances for energized minorities to slow progress (a strong feature, according to the Constitution’s framers). This is great if you are one of those minorities, but not so great for the rest of us. And if I had all the answers for stopping the NRA, I promise you I would not be here writing this blog post. 

What to Do if You Don’t Have the Numbers on Your Side

What if you are in the minority, but aren’t fortunate enough to have the organization, resources, and membership of the NRA? You are not without options. The most important tactic in this case is coalition building with other constituencies. As I wrote about in “What Advocacy Organizations Can Learn From the Most Effective Lawmakers,” great lawmakers are able to advance the sometimes idiosyncratic interests of their constituents by building alliances with other groups to win votes. Typically it is most helpful to pursue “strange bedfellows” outside of your immediate ideological coalition who can bring others along that you wouldn’t normally reach. The Obama Administration took some criticism for briefly allying with insurance companies in the legislative fight over health care reform, but this helped overcome strident opposition to reform from other business interests. Hunters and wilderness advocates joining forces to fight for land conservation is another example. Ideally, your new friends bring a lot of political power too. As I’ll discuss in the third post in this series, the relative political influence of the constituencies involved in a policy issue are a key factor in understanding the landscape and in driving policy outcomes.