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The Issue Mix

Mitt Romney needs to run on more than just the economy.

Apr 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 31 • By JEFFREY BELL
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In 1996 and 2000, this strong Democratic advantage was significantly offset by Republican leads among voters who chose “Taxes.” In 1996, the 11 percent of all voters choosing “Taxes” favored Dole over Clinton 73-19 percent. In 2000, 14 percent of voters made this choice, and they favored Bush over Gore 80-17 percent. Dole in 1996 and Bush in 2000 offered specific tax cut proposals as centerpieces of their campaigns.

In 2004, with two Bush tax cuts approved by Congress and having taken effect, only 5 percent of voters chose “Taxes” as their leading issue. Bush carried these voters over Kerry, 57-43 percent, not nearly enough to overcome Kerry’s overwhelming advantage among the 20 percent who chose “Economy/Jobs.”

In fact, 2004 was the year when, for the first time since 1988, social issues came to the forefront of a presidential election. As in 1988, they proved critical to GOP presidential success. In 2004 they mainly took the form of a controversy over judicial imposition of same-sex marriage, beginning in Massachusetts but showing strong signs of spreading nationwide. The 22 percent of voters who that year chose “Moral Values” as their top motivator went for Bush by a margin of 80-18 percent—an advantage that more than offset his net deficit in all the other issues tested by the exit poll combined.

There are several takeaways from this history as it relates to the present political landscape.

n The idea that Democrats sweep the field whenever social issues emerge is a myth. 

n Republican presidential nominees do better with economic issues when they have a future-oriented agenda, usually, since the Reagan era, built around specific tax cut proposals. 

n A future-oriented economic debate is even more urgently needed, given the trend in the economic narrative’s third phase toward more favorable results for the president and his fellow Democrats. 

n Going back to Andrew Jackson’s crusade against the Second Bank of the United States, there has often been a moral component in the American economic debate. In the Obama years, marked by the phenomenon of the Tea Party, this moral dimension is on the rise. 

In pursuit of an economic issue strategy, Republicans have a decision to make that is both substantive and stylistic: a choice between a technocratic, utilitarian approach personified by Mitt Romney’s years of business success at Bain Capital, and the moral argument in favor of limited government that has characterized the Tea Party movement. Especially in today’s context of an improving economy, it would not be wise to consign moral arguments to the primary season. 

Finally, social issues like the HHS contraception mandate and same-sex marriage seem increasingly likely to play a significant role in this year’s general election. A big reason for this lies in the dismissive headlines quoted at the beginning of this article. 

The left is dominant on social issues in the Democratic party. But despite huge success in the larger culture, the left has on occasion come to grief by overplaying its hand in presidential politics. The palpable desire of Republican elites to avoid confrontation on social issues leads the social left to move in for the kill on the assumption that the battle is already over. 

But Democrats have not reckoned on the resilience of social conservative forces. The Roman Catholic bishops under the formidable leadership of Cardinal Timothy Dolan are just beginning to mobilize against the contraception/sterilization/abortion-pill mandate as a direct threat to the religious freedom of Catholics. And Obama and his team may be on the verge of putting an explicit commitment to same-sex marriage into the Democratic platform, which would make gay marriage a fully polarized issue this fall after the Democratic National Convention.

There is a demographic reason why social issues of this type have (in the 1980s and in 2004) favored Republican nominees in presidential elections: Swing voters in the pivotal heartland states are more conservative socially than they are economically—a mirror image of swing voters in the Northeast and Pacific Coast. Democrats may relearn this lesson after it is too late, assuming Republican elites—and the Republican nominee—take the minimal steps necessary to allow these issues to be part of the debate in the campaign leading up to Election Day this November.

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

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