At a talk at New America this afternoon, Grover Norquist hit upon one of my abiding obsessions in politics, the difference between what issues people respond to in polls and what they actually vote on.
In describing the nature of the center-right coalition he said that all the different groups that make it up have their own "vote-moving issue," the thing that gets them to the polls, motivates them to make phone calls and give money. It's important, Norquist said, to understand "the difference between intensity and preference." That is, between issues that move people's actual votes, and what preferences they might express in polls. He noted that 70% Republicans are skeptical of free trade but, "they don't vote on that issue, so at one level I don't care."
Same with the growth of government under Bush. Since each constituency in the Republican coalition has gotten what it wants on its "vote-moving issues" (judges, assault weapons, tax cuts), they tolerate increased spending even if they don't like it. "Thank you very much for my vote-moving issue and grumble, gumble, you spend too much," they say according to Norquist. But "'spend too much' doesn't make people walk out of the room, it doesn't make people throw heavy objects."