Despite reports of Republican devastation in the contraception debate, social conservative themes show surprising signs of hanging around.

Rick Santorum’s upset wins in Alabama and Mississippi—in most pre-primary polls he was running third—are part of the story. So are CNN exit polls that suggest no-exceptions pro-life voters accounted for considerably more than his margins of victory.

Of the primary electorates in the two states, 32 percent of Alabama voters and 28 percent of Mississippi voters told CNN, “Abortion should be always illegal.” Among these hard-line socially conservative voters, Santorum outpolled Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in Alabama, 49 to 28 to18, and in Mississippi, 44 to 30 to 21. He won the two primaries by 6 and 2 percentage points, respectively.

Well, that’s the Deep South for you. But what about deep-blue Massachusetts, where Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren has fallen behind Senator Scott Brown since rolling out a high-profile advertising campaign on behalf of the Obamacare contraception mandate? Brown hit back with ads accusing Warren of wanting to “use the power of government to force Catholics to violate the teachings of their faith,” citing his Democratic predecessor Ted Kennedy as a supporter of conscience exemptions.

The debate dominated the Senate race for several weeks. Its upshot led Boston Globe reporter Frank Phillips to write, “[I]f several of the recent polls are correct, Brown may have benefited from his positions on social issues in the last few weeks, such as the one over whether Catholic institutions should be forced to provide contraception in their health care plans for workers.”

National popular reaction to the Obamacare mandate has varied considerably depending on how the question is phrased, but overall the mandate has received very mixed reviews. The latest New York Times /CBS poll found opposition to the mandate in regard to religiously affiliated employers, 57 to 36, and opposition to the mandate for all employers, 51 to 40—the harder-line version was narrowly voted down in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate. The same poll showed President Obama falling from 50 to 43 approval—its finding of a month ago—to 41 to 47 disapproval.

Although non-social factors, such as rising gas prices, were undoubtedly involved, it’s hard to believe that the simultaneous explosion of debate over the contraception mandate could have been all that devastating for Republicans. This impression is confirmed by the new Washington Post/ABC polling showing Mitt Romney taking the lead over Obama in the last month, with gains among both male and female voters.

Romney is assumed to be the social moderate in the GOP field, and it’s true that distrust on the part of socially conservative voters is an ongoing problem for him. But whatever the level of distrust, in his day-to-day campaign Romney is not trying to present himself as even a millimeter to Santorum’s left on social issues. He recently called for zeroing out all of Planned Parenthood’s federal subsidies, and has run commercials critical of Santorum for failing to take a similar position during his years in the Senate.

Will 2012 be one of those presidential years in which social issues play a significant role in the general election?

In a cycle so far dominated by a stagnant economy, no one is predicting this. But, then, virtually no one predicted social issues would rise to the top in 1988 or 2004, the post-Reagan elections in which they did so. Republican elites who fear such a development should keep in mind that 1988 and 2004 were also the only two post-Reagan elections in which their party won a popular majority. The signs are growing that this is a history capable of repeating itself.

Jeffrey Bell, policy director of American Principles Project, is author of The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism (Encounter Books, March 2012).

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