Rick Santorum creates a stir by speaking out against prenatal testing. Virginia’s governor and legislature get caught up in an emotional debate over requiring women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound. President Obama, under pressure, recalibrates his position on health-insurance coverage of contraception for employers with religious affiliations.
Social issues are back with a vengeance, dominating the dialogue on the presidential campaign trail, in Congress and in state capitals.
In an election that until this point has been almost totally defined by the economy’s struggles, the abrupt return of the culture wars has introduced a volatile new element. There are any number of ways in which the politics might play out, but perhaps the biggest question is the degree to which the new attention on social issues might shape the battle for one of the most important electoral swing groups: moderate and independent women voters.
Even before social issues were forced front and center by the combination of Mr. Santorum’s new prominence, the recent battle over the Susan G. Komen foundation’s financing of Planned Parenthood and Mr. Obama’s decision to revise his contraception policy, both parties were tracking the sentiments of women voters closely.
Comments by Mr. Santorum about related issues, including women in combat and the role of “radical feminism” in encouraging work outside the home, only fueled the sense that the election could present women with stark ideological choices about their rights and place in society.
Democrats, including Mr. Obama, have traditionally relied heavily on the female vote. From 1992 to 2008, Democrats won the overall women’s vote in every presidential election, with Mr. Obama defeating Senator John McCain four years ago 56 percent to 43 percent among women, according to exit polls. (Republicans have tended to win white women and married women, with Democrats winning nonwhite women and single women.)
But in the 2010 midterm election, women, who vote in greater numbers than men, swung to Republicans, if barely, cutting deeply into the core of Mr. Obama’s electoral coalition.
There are now signs that Mr. Obama is winning women back to the Democratic side. In a New York Times/CBS News poll this month, Mr. Obama came out well ahead of Mitt Romney among all women in a head-to-head matchup (53 percent to 37 percent) and essentially held him to a draw even among white and married women. Mr. Obama held much the same advantage over Mr. Santorum, who has trailed behind Mr. Romney among women voters in some state polls looking at Republican primary contests.
Social issues provide both parties a chance to rally their ideological bases. For Republicans, especially in low-turnout primaries, invoking values-laden subjects helps generate turnout among conservatives, both men and women. On the Democratic side, the Komen fight and the Virginia ultrasound law have been opportunities for abortion-rights and women’s groups to raise money, register voters and promote their agendas.
It is less clear how the issues might play among moderate and independent women. As one example, Catholic women, another swing group won by Mr. Obama in 2008 that Republicans won in 2010, backed the administration’s stance about health coverage of contraception in this month’s New York Times/CBS News poll.
Democrats say their opportunity is less to run on those issues in particular than to use the subject to help convince women, and especially independent women, that Republicans are moving so far to the right in a general sense that they are no longer an acceptable alternative to run the country.
“When Republicans focus in a very extreme way on these kinds of issues, it focuses more attention on the problems with the Republican brand,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster. “It becomes part of a larger narrative about Republican leadership and a referendum on Republican leadership over the last year and a half.”
Independent women “are turned off by extremism,” Ms. Greenberg said. “It’s not a broadband issue for the Democratic Party, but as a targeted message to independent women, it can be very effective.”
But while social issues inspire passionate reactions along the ideological wings of the two parties, they tend not to be seen as priorities among the vast pool of voters in the middle – especially at a time when the economy remains far and away their main concern.
“You rarely ever see social issues come up as one of the most important issues facing the nation,” said Karlyn Bowman, who studies public opinion as a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative research group. “Historically, while they have been big and divisive issues in some governor’s and Senate races, they tend not to be very important on a national level.”
More to the point, some Republicans said, the surge of attention to these issues could well prove to be brief, and to fade quickly away if Mr. Romney can dispatch Mr. Santorum relatively quickly and return the focus of the campaign to Mr. Obama’s performance on creating jobs.
“If Rick Santorum is not the nominee, all the attention to these issues is going to evaporate,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “The probability of social issues playing a significant role in the general election is minimal.”
The idea that Republicans will be branded as extremists in the eyes of independent and moderate voters as a result of the current focus on the issues is “a Democratic fantasy,” Mr. Ayres said. “What will drive independent voters is whether they see improvement in the economy and progress in stopping the relentless expansion of federal spending and deficits and keeping us from going the way of Greece.”