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A recurring theme in political discourse is the search for magic bullets. Very often, you will see an analyst say something along the lines of “I favor policy X. Look at polls, which show high levels of support for X. Just run on X and you can achieve overwhelming political victories!”

We can call this the “Magic Bullet Theory of Politics.” It’s the idea that there’s some low-hanging fruit out there, some very simple thing that can break the relative parity between our two major parties and give a candidate a clear electoral boost.

Some examples from recent years:

Bernie Sanders fans saying that Democrats can win elections by leaning hard towards economic redistribution.
Gun control activists arguing that overwhelming support for background checks and other reforms means that Democrats should run on their issue.
Immigration restrictionists arguing that opposition to illegal immigration means politicians should run as nativists.
In each case, Magic Bullet Theory does have some truth to it. Usually, the polls the activists are relying on are legitimate. And a limited version of Magic Bullet Theory is clearly correct; politicians can at the margins improve their chances of winning by adopting more popular positions. Usually, however, there are no magic bullets in politics, for the simple fact that if they existed they probably would have been used already. And while politicians can gain votes by ditching unpopular positions that are associated with their own party, they rarely do this because they are beholden to interest groups and activists on their side of the aisle.

Part of the problem activists have is that they get fooled by polling questions that do not give any counterarguments. But when a policy is being debated in the public sphere, people hear the case for both sides of an issue. A recent example I like is Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. Ask about the policy in isolation, it has majority support. Name one tradeoff or cost, which opponents of a policy will inevitably do, and support goes negative.

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