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.”

Democrats have a tendency to look at polls and see vast majorities that support all kinds of things from higher minimum wages, to universal healthcare to campaign finance reform, but fail to recognize that very few of these issues are vote-movers. That doesn’t mean they can’t be turned into vote-movers through organizing and movement building, but on a lot of the most important issues we’re not quite there yet.

The worst example of mistaking preference for intensity is on the issue of “fiscal responsibility.” Tune into CSPAN at random and you’re likely to hear a Democrat railing against fiscal irresponsibility and the budget deficit. The worst offenders are the Blue Dog caucus of Democrats from conservative districts who are positively obsessed, with a kind of monomaniacal zeal, on balancing the budget and matching revenue to expenditures. So much so, in fact, that they’re now threatening to block Jim Webb’s excellent G.I. Bill because its expenses aren’t adequately off-set.

This is asinine. The notion that it will somehow be politically beneficial to go back to a conservative district and crow about killing a bill to give educational benefits to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is loony. And the notion that voters will base their vote on fiscal rectitude is ungrounded both empirically and experientially. Can someone name the last time a member of congress was voted out of office because the deficit was too large? I understand that Democrats in conservative districts will vote differently than those from, say, Manhattan or Oakland. But the Blue Dog caucus has chosen an inexplicably stupid issue to plant their flag on. And their obstinacy is going to cause massive headaches should there be a Democrat in the White House come January.