In a presidential election year when the economy should take center stage social issues have roiled the political landscape.  The president in his bid to fire up the grassroots has warned of Roe vs. Wade being overturned while surrogates of Romney (mainly Rick Santorum) have voiced worries about the survival of the traditional family in America.  Recent developments and the campaign’s latest tactics now beg the question whether social issues will play a role in the 2012 presidential race?  And if they do how much?

Social issues have been at play in the presidential race since late February when HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius unveiled with the WH a new Obamacare regulation stating that private religious entities (excluding churches only) would be forced to violate their beliefs and provide contraception in their Healthcare coverage to employees.  The counter-reaction was swift and fierce with Romney and then GOP candidate Rick Santorum condemning the move (more so Santorum).  The White House appeared to back down by unveiling a compromise but it did little but change the language of the regulation.

Since than social conservative groups and the American Catholic Church have kept the issue alive.  Most recently, the Catholic Church filed suit arguing the regulation forces them to violate their religious conscience and thus the 1st Amendment.  They have a recent Supreme Court ruling on their side.  In January the Court ruled unanimously that religious employees cannot sue their employer if they violate the religious aspects of their contract.  The court did leave a murky hole where they could have been more clear but it was obvious they sided with freedom of religion vs. work environment related issues.

While the case is likely to get to the SCOTUS, regardless of the rulings of the lower courts, it is unclear how it could affect the 2012 race.  The president’s announcement in support of gay marriage was supposed to galvanize his young followers.  Instead, while they cheered a solid 2/3rds of the public said the president only did it for political reasons.

Social issues have long been defined as the other “third rail” of politics.  Abortion, gay marriage, repealing Roe vs. Wade gun control or no, etc. have been used by both parties consistently in elections to garner votes.  In this election we can likely add another to the list, equal pay for women.  While these issues may play to the party’s bases independents may not be so receptive to a campaign based on social issues in this kind of economy.  In survey after survey social issues ranked low on voters priorities and the only surveys it registered in as an issue were in certain GOP primaries.

Recently Gallup unveiled its yearly survey on religion and values in the US.  Taken from 1024 adults the poll found 50% identified as pro-life and 41% pro-choice.  This is a startling gap since 2000 when voters split at 46%.  On the issue of contraception 84% said it was morally acceptable and 9% did not.  In terms of the using the death penalty 54% said it was moral and 32% did not.  Lastly, 54% of adults consider having kids out of marriage morally acceptable and 42% do not.

For both parties there are instructive bits of information to be gleaned from the poll.  First, the contraception issue is unlikely to change voters minds.  Second, the lines on what is pro-life and pro-choice are becoming less defined among the Millennial Generation.  In a Pew survey on religion last year a full 40% of those pro-life said their view of the abortion depended on the circumstances.  Very few of the younger voters in the survey identified as strongly pro-life or pro-choice as opposed to older voters.

In the past social issues have played a so-so to big impact on presidential races.  In 2000 George Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative” who was pro-life.  Al Gore hedged and avoided talking about the issue (explains why he lost TN so bad).  In 2004 social issues played a large part in Bush’s reelection win.  In dozens of states, several swing states in fact, amendments put on the ballot to add language to the states constitutions banning gay marriage.  This is widely credited with bringing many social conservatives, young and old, to the polls.  In 2008, with the economy collapsing and a hip young Democratic candidate for president social issues, including the president’s extreme view on abortion, were glossed over.

It is likely that the campaigns will target social issues to bring out their bases.  The GOP will bring out socially conservative heroes such as Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin.  The left is sure to counter with the likes of Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.  But the narrow swath of voters both campaigns will try to reach have shown in survey after survey they care about the economy and jobs.  It remains that the economy will be what will decide the election.  Not social issues.


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