Engagement and Exploitation of the Single Issue Voter

I was once a single-issue voter. In 2000, I voted for George W. Bush over Al Gore on the sole basis of Supreme Court nominations. The composition of the court was, at the time, the only electoral issue of relevance and resonance in my world. American politics was to me then a keeperless menagerie of chameleon ethics, peacock posturing, and gorilla dung-hurling. (Thanks, Bill and Newt.) In contrast to the presidential zoo and the congressional circus, it seemed to me that the Supreme Court was the only place in Washington where serious business was transacted, a place of rationale debate where decisions reverberated beyond the next news cycle.

I caught snippets of the presidential campaign that summer and fall, never yielding more time to campaign news than to a daily check of the weather forecast. While I acknowledged that “compassionate conservatism” was a savvy centrist message by the not-so-centrist Karl Rove, it didn’t hook me. No slogan or buzzword could have hooked me, in fact, because I observed the presidential contest with the same level of engagement I reserve for the NHL. Which is to say: I know what it is, there will likely be fighting, highlights will be shown on TV, someone will win, and my life will carry on.

There was scant tangible evidence of presidential impact on my life as a 25-year-old graduate student in middle America. My wife and I had welcomed to this world our first child less than a week before the 2000 election, so the fragility and wonder of babies (stirred into a cocktail of sleep deprivation) colored my every thought. I was then and continue to be generally pro-life. Fresh out of seminary, I had been challenged by voices from the Seamless Garment Network (now called Consistent Life) to integrate my evangelical pro-life stance into a broader advocacy, but my thinking in those areas was still, like my political views, gestational. With one infant and one new mom to care for already, I refused to suffer head-wagging, open-mouthed politicians seeking their comfort at the teat of public opinion.

Out of a vague sense of civic duty, I cast my one vote for one issue. The grave, black robed tribe of justices struck me as particularly old that year. (Don’t they every year?) I did some back of the napkin calculations and derived that at least two of the justices would retire before the end of a new president’s second term. Since justices serve an average 16-year term, I concluded that my one presidential vote (ostensibly about 4-8 executive years) could impact 32 judicial years. So I voted for the presidential candidate whom I thought was more likely to nominate justices aligned with my values. My values were almost exclusively religious in nature, and so I went with Bush. That was the process. (I guess I voted for Roberts and Alito, which is tough to swallow in hindsight. Oh, and Bush.)

As I know now and as many of you knew then, the single-issue voter (SIV) invites exploitation. The SIV is either of low cognitive complexity or of low political engagement or both. The SIV is often susceptible to broad brush political advertising that manipulates its target audience on a moral or emotional level. The SIV may be pro-life, pro-choice, pro-gun, pro-environment or anti-tax, anti-immigration, anti-war, anti-Wall Street. The SIV neglects systemic interdependencies and ignores collateral damage. While the multiple issue citizen (MIC) places all of those issues (and more) into a mental matrix to determine his or her political preferences, the SIV blocks out all but his or her primary issue. As a result, SIVs may be voting to throw out the baby with the bathwater, or they may be naïve accomplices in adding alligators to the baby’s bathwater. Political consultants exploit the moral gravitas of so-called wedge issues to herd voters into narrow ideological lanes. Voters are duped into abandoning the totality of their views and the variegation of their personhood in favor of a single litmus test and a one-dimensional disembodied partisanhood.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.


  1. Ben, thank you for sharing your
    past SIV tendencies with us, and in the process encouraging readers to be
    mindful or our own thinking and to be aware of the traps laid by those who
    would herd us into narrow ideological lanes.  When I hear the term “single issue voter” I
    draw back because I certainly don’t want to be painted with that brush.  Therefore, when I read your article I hoped
    that I would not find myself aligned with the camp that you deemed SIV.

    You began by saying that you were
    once a single issue voter and then go on to describe that, when boiled down,
    the single issue for you was with
    regard to judicial nominations.  You said
    “So I voted for the presidential candidate whom I thought was more likely to
    nominate justices aligned with my values.” My first reaction was “uh-oh, that
    sounds a lot like me and my thought process”, but then I saw it…my bail out.

    There, tucked at the end of your
    SIC proclamation was the word “values”.  In
    the very phrase in which you announce your “single issue”, you end the sentence
    with value(s)…plural!  As I read back
    through your article, here is how I followed your thought process to be: “well
    I had better vote for candidate “A”, because “A” will likely nominate one or
    more justices, and the justices chosen by candidate “A” are more likely to be
    aligned with my values (plural), and therefore “A” is the person I
    should vote for”. If I read that correctly then I don’t think you should fault
    yourself for that kind of rational.

    In your final paragraph you contrast
    a SIV with a MIC by saying “While the multiple issue citizen (MIC) places all
    of those issues (and more) into a mental matrix to determine his or her
    political preferences”. Places all of those issues? Read “values”? You see, I
    think you did run your values through a mental matrix and when you saw where those
    values shook out, you had to make a call and go with the candidate that best
    represented your values as a collective.


  2. benponderNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for your well-considered comment, Josh. Your critique is sufficiently nuanced that it merits a longer post than I could (or should) make inside a comment box. Give me a couple of days, and I’ll respond in a follow-up post on the blog. Thanks again.


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