How Litmus Tests Warp Politics

The NRA and Planned Parenthood are two sides of the same problematic coin.

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For political candidates, prevailing in a contested primary season requires one to pass certain litmus tests on social issues such as gun rights and reproductive rights. Primaries are used as opportunities for individuals and organizations to vet the candidates on the purity of their stances. Individuals concerned about these types of issues are often single-issue voters that are deeply engaged and committed to select the candidate that best supports their position. These are typically passionate voters that candidates specifically target and often pander to in order to win them over through the various debates, caucuses and straw polls of an election cycle.

Often, Republican candidates try to out-duel each other over who would be the stronger protector of the Second Amendment – complete with campaign ads showing them in their hunting gear, carrying a rifle and bragging about the various "varments" they killed. Democratic candidates emphasize their commitment to ensuring a woman's right to make her own health care decisions and to never see Roe v. Wade overturned. 

During the 2012 elections, the National Rifle Association spent $32 million, while Planned Parenthood for America spent $12 million on political activity. Both organizations are highly skilled, with well-organized, effective political operations that have the ability to mobilize millions of voters towards or against a particular candidate. Their endorsement, especially during the primary season, can make or break a candidate.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Recently, legislation was introduced in Congress that has put the two powerhouse groups – the NRA and PPFA – in a defensive posture, forcing them to take more hardened positions that are more extreme than the mainstream. 

In April, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., both A-rated members by the NRA, introduced a bill that sought to expand background checks for all gun sales. This is a position that the NRA once supported, along with 88 percent of the American people (including 77 percent of NRA members).

Now, however, the NRA opposes any expansion of background checks. In retaliation, the NRA has already launched a series of attack ads against Manchin, even though he won't stand for election until 2018. Even thought he took the position that an overwhelming majority of voters support, the NRA will use the full weight of its organization to defeat him in his next election.

In June, the U.S. House passed legislation that would ban virtually all abortions nationwide 20 weeks after conception, which is five months of pregnancy. According to a recent National Journal poll, this is a position 50 percent of women support and 43 percent oppose. Recent Gallup polls find that 73 percent of Americans oppose second-trimester abortions and 86 percent oppose third-trimester abortions.

Planned Parenthood opposed this bill, stating it was unconstitutional, unacceptable and "a violation of a woman's legal right to a safe abortion."

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should There Be Less Disclosure in Campaign Finance?]

During her 2000 Senate race, Hillary Clinton supported a ban on late-term abortions, saying, "I have said many times that I can support a ban on late-term abortions, including partial-birth abortions, so long as the health and life of the mother is protected." Also, in 2012, when asked if he supported the ban on partial-birth abortions or late-term abortions, Vice President Biden said, "I did and I do." Will Clinton and Biden's past support for a ban on late-term abortions need to evolve to endorsing a procedure that 73 percent of Americans oppose in order to garner the endorsement of PPFA in 2016?

In the wake of two significant events – the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the conviction of Dr. Gosnell, a Philadelphia doctor who performed gruesome and illegal late-term abortions – the American people have started to demand a different conversation about what it means to be pro-gun or pro-choice.  They seem to be more comfortable with certain restrictions that seek to balance the rights of the individual while preventing tragedy to the innocent.

But the powerful interest groups appear to be demanding more stringent litmus tests for determining which candidate has the "purest position" to be considered pro-gun or pro-choice.

In 2016, will the politicians be most afraid of special interest groups or will they most fear the will of the people? 

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