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Political intelligence

Drug abuse could be sleeper issue in 2016

Presidential campaigns have long been wary of the “October surprise,” the unforeseen, late-stage event or revelation that can alter the course of an election.

Equally powerful can be sleeper issues that are sleepers because they don’t germinate in the high-level strategy powwows or in the much-maligned Washington think tanks, but among the masses, who collectively bum-rush them onto the agenda.

Ronald Reagan surfed, all the way to the convention, on grass-roots concern that President Gerald Ford was poised to give away the Panama Canal. In 2008, the bases of both parties agreed that immigration policies were broken but disagreed about how to fix them; the fissures roiled the Republic primary and helped Barack Obama solidify his coalition.


In 2016, consider drug abuse as a potential heir to those from-the-bottom-up issues.

There is a drumbeat growing in both parties that could move the highly personal, painful matter of heroin and opioid drug addiction, which has metastasized into an epidemic, higher on the national agenda than at any time since the rampant crack crisis more than two decades ago.

Earlier this month in Manchester, Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, said he would prioritize drug addiction as one of the “five or six” chief issues of his potential presidential bid.

On Monday in Mason City, Iowa, Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed drug abuse before she commented publicly on the Trans-Pacific trade deal, one of the central economic policy questions of the day. Calling it a “below the surface” issue, Clinton said she was “now convinced” that she needed to talk about it on the trail.

Not coincidentally, early-state politicians of both parties have already named it a defining problem. One Clinton campaign aide told the Globe that hearing about meth in Iowa and heroin in New Hampshire had prompted Clinton to ask her policy team to begin working on what she has previously called a “quiet epidemic.”


In Durham, N.H., last week, the Democratic former governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, said his state had seen more drug overdose fatalities than those from traffic deaths and homicides combined.

“What would we do if these individuals were suffering from Ebola?” O’Malley rhetorically asked reporters.

In Massachusetts, both Republican Governor Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey placed it front and center early in their terms, Healey calling it her “first major initiative.” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, whose longtime activism in the recovery community helped win his election, made a legislative career of pushing for increased spending on recovery services.

“Talking about it, it makes them real in a lot of ways,” Walsh of the candidates. He likened addiction to gut-check concerns like housing prices and unemployment.

“This is one issue that crosses over party lines, crosses over economic lines. Whether it’s the top 2 percent of the country or the bottom 98 percent, addiction affects everybody the same way.”

Walsh said he spoke this week about drug abuse as a political issue with Boston-based Clinton adviser Michael Whouley, and added, “I think they’re all going to talk about it. I think the issue’s gone to a national level.”

Data would appear to back up the notion that there is a constituency of the concerned about opioids and heroin. A poll, conducted in April for the Globe and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, revealed just how big it could be.


In both Massachusetts and the rest of the country, 39 percent said they knew someone who had abused prescription painkillers in the past five years. Fifty-one percent of those people in Massachusetts said they believed that usage had led to use of heroin or other illegal drugs; 43 percent nationwide.

In Massachusetts, 74 percent of people familiar with prescription abuse said it had wrought “major harmful” effects on the user’s family life; it was 67 percent across the country.

Those are the sort of big-bloc numbers that make the people who design a campaign’s message and policy points raise their heads and take notice.

And, as too many families can already attest, opioid abuse knifes through demographic strata. Through a cynically political lens, that means a candidate can talk on the issue with expected impact to voters who otherwise fall into tightly micro-targeted buckets.

Of course, primary-state pablum is one thing and actual policy enactment is quite another. Witness all the discussion in the last several presidential campaigns of the insolubility of Social Security, and the inaction that ensued. Or the lingering debate over immigration policy.

Landing squarely under the klieg lights of a presidential debate does not an unalloyed policy solution make. And none of the campaigns appears to have produced a sterling answer yet.

But, just as issues can steer elections, campaigns have a way of elevating issues. And, to those for whom the time to tackle drug abuse is not too late, it appears as if perhaps its time has come.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.