Contraception, Abortion: A Reminder That It's Not Just The Economy, Stupid : Political Junkie Conventional wisdom says the presidential election will be decided on the state of the economy. But, as recent controversies attest, don't be surprised if the culture wars — battles over abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage — also play a role.
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Contraception, Abortion: A Reminder That It's Not Just The Economy, Stupid

Contraception, Abortion: A Reminder That It's Not Just The Economy, Stupid

The 2012 presidential election will be won, or lost, over jobs and economy. I think we're pretty much in agreement on that. That was certainly the case in 1980, when Ronald Reagan ousted Jimmy Carter; in 1992, when Bill Clinton toppled the senior George Bush; and in 2008, in the midst of an economic crisis and financial meltdown, when Barack Obama won the White House. And it's likely to be the deciding factor as to whether Obama gets reelected.

Social issues, such as abortion, have been a part of the campaign dialogue since at least the 1973 Roe decision. Reagan supporters talked about the sanctity of life and opposition to abortion in 1980 (top button); Gore supporters in 2000 argued that the election was about who would name Supreme Court justices to protect a woman's right to choose (bottom button). Ken Rudin collection hide caption

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But that's not to say that social issues won't play a significant role. Issues like abortion and contraception were always going to come up in the campaign, we knew that. And for some voters, perhaps more so on the GOP side, the passion over such issues may very well surpass their feelings for the candidates.

Republicans will argue, as they have been for years now, over Mitt Romney's true views on abortion. Many debate whether his opposition is based on core principles or expediency, and that debate is likely to continue. It's a debate that can only help the Democrats in November, should Romney become the nominee. But social conservatives in general, and the nation's Roman Catholic bishops in particular, have directed their fury in recent days on the Obama administration's decision, since revised, to require religious organizations and charities to pay for insurance plans that offer free birth control. It's a policy that, while hardly radical, contradicts Catholic teachings about contraception. And it's a controversy the White House would rather not have entered.

The outcry came not only from Republicans and their religious allies but from many Democrats as well. Former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, the party's likely nominee for the Senate this year who is Catholic, said he had "grave concerns" about the White House's policy, and Sens. Bob Casey (Pa.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.), who are both up for re-election this year, also expressed their opposition. The compromise announced Friday shifted the responsibility of paying for the contraceptives from the religious charities to health insurance companies. But even those normally aligned with Obama were not completely satisfied.

Still, one can't help but think that in the end, this is less about contraception and religious teachings and more about what some inside the GOP see as a winning issue, one that paints Obama as hostile to religion and religious freedom. It also once again draws attention to the fact that the White House once again found itself the need to backtrack on a controversy it created, whether or not the original policy was the correct one. As we've learned these past three years, whenever it backtracks, it satisfies no one.

One unanswered question is whether Catholics, who don't normally vote as a bloc, will see this as an issue to get excited about. Although Catholic teaching prohibits contraception, surveys show that an overwhelming number of Catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives. But that may not really be the point, according to opponents. They ask, should the Obama administration be offering edicts that violate or contradict official religious teachings?

And it's not just birth control that has reminded us of a resumption of the culture wars. Lately, it's been non stop. There was the abortion-related flap about the Susan G. Komen foundation and its decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood — a decision since reversed following unrelenting outside pressure. A federal appeals court panel overturned the California anti-gay marriage initiative known as Proposition 8 that was passed by the voters in 2008. A federal judge decided not to block a Texas law that requires women to have a sonogram before having an abortion, a law that is designed to discourage abortions. These are all things that may motivate voters one way or the other. And, in selected swing states, they can influence the result in November.

Yes, it's the economy, stupid, and Obama will undoubtedly rise or fall on it. But don't discount the social issues.

MittPAC: Mitt Romney won the straw poll on Saturday at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference held in Washington, getting 38 percent of the vote. Four years ago, Romney also won it; interestingly, he had ended his candidacy two days prior, also during the conference. This year, Rick Santorum, off his sweep of three contests last Tuesday, finished second to Romney with 31 percent. Newt Gingrich was well back with 15 percent and Ron Paul, who won the straw vote the past two years and often does well at these events, finished last with 12 percent. The straw poll is always ballyhooed in the media but it has never been seen as a truly accurate portrayal of conservative sentiment, let alone a barometer of who eventually wins the nomination. Here's a recent history of CPAC straw poll winners:

2005: Rudy Giuliani (2nd: Condoleezza Rice)

2006: George Allen (2nd: John McCain)

2007: Mitt Romney (2nd: Giuliani)

2008: Romney (2nd: McCain)

2009: Romney (2nd: Bobby Jindal)

2010: Ron Paul (2nd: Romney)

2011: Paul (2nd: Romney)

Political Updates. I post periodic political updates during the week on Twitter. You can follow me at @kenrudin. Meanwhile, time for some questions from the mailbag:

Q: A recent Political Junkie segment on TOTN discussed the well-trod thesis that "Ron Paul's isolationism is way out of the mainstream." I respect Ron Paul, though I'm not exactly a supporter. But I bristle every time I hear the idea that Paul's criticism of the USA's global military reach is "nowhere near the mainstream" (or one of its synonyms). It smacks of propaganda to me. I do think it's accurate to say that his criticism is a minority opinion, but minority opinions are nevertheless in the main stream of thought, even if they are not in its dominant current. — Eric Hughes, Salt Lake City, Utah

A: Point well taken.

Q: Will Ron Paul get to speak during the convention in prime time? If he gets enough delegates, will he be able to influence the party platform, or will Romney dictate it? And how will Paul's followers react if he's perceived as having been snubbed? — Jim Bartos, Beaverton, Ore.

A: Four years ago, Paul, who was still an active candidate well after John McCain had sewn up the nomination, refused to attend the GOP convention in St. Paul and in fact held his own protest convention not far away in Minneapolis. The rally was attended by some 10,000 Paul supporters. This time he is expected to be more of a factor but, for the moment at least, he is the only one thus far not to have come in first in a primary or caucus. So we don't know what his influence will ultimately be. Still, his relationship with Romney is said to be cordial, and in fact he spends more of his time going after Newt Gingrich in the debates rather than Romney. Perhaps Romney is hoping that a amicable relationship will help him win over Paul's supporters come the general election (assuming Romney is the nominee). Should the relationship continue to be civil, there's no question that Romney will want Paul to speak at the convention in Tampa this summer. Prime time I'm not sure.

But one thing that you surely can say about most of those backing Paul is that they are totally committed to their candidate. And so there's no guarantee that if Paul is not the nominee these voters will automatically go to Romney.

Q: Is the potential miscount we saw in the Iowa caucuses and the confusion later in Nevada going to make a difference to who gets the nomination? — Ray Betzner, Philadelphia, Pa.

A: For all the attention we place on the Iowa precinct caucuses, the fact is, the delegates to the national convention aren't awarded until the state convention, which occurs months later. All that happens at the precinct caucuses is that delegates are elected and sent to the 99 county conventions. There delegates are selected to the congressional district convention and then on to the state convention. That's when the national delegates are selected. Usually by then the nominee — certainly on the GOP side — has long since been decided.

That's the case with caucuses in general. National delegates aren't decided until the final tier of the process, which is usually a state convention. I honestly don't know why there seems to be a new focus this year to remind people that delegates aren't awarded in the first round, when that's always been the case. The real outcome of the caucuses, at least in their first tier, is headlines and momentum. And that certainly does make a difference on the road to the national convention and the nomination.

Q: What is with New Hampshire claiming to be the first in the nation primary? It should be Oregon. One hundred years ago Oregon held the first primary, long before New Hampshire was even a colony, or something like that. How long has this upstart New Hampshire primary been claiming to be the first in the nation? — Kent Coe, La Grande, Ore.

A: In the history of presidential preference primaries, you correctly note that Oregon came well before New Hampshire. Back in 1912, on the Republican side, former President Theodore Roosevelt beat both Sen. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, a fellow progressive, and President William Howard Taft in Oregon. On the Democratic side, New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson defeated House Speaker Champ Clark. The state has been holding meaningful primaries ever since.

And while Oregon was holding these presidential preference primaries, usually in May, New Hampshire was holding its contests early, in March. But their primaries did not include the opportunity for voters to choose among candidates; the state usually sent unpledged delegates at large to the national conventions. That didn't change until 1952, when candidates' names appeared on the ballot. That year, President Truman was defeated in the Democratic primary by Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, and in the Republican contest, Dwight Eisenhower beat Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio. Thus began New Hampshire's claim to the "first in the nation" primary, which continues to this day.

But yes, Oregon began its presidential preference primary first.

Q: In your column about replacing Joe Biden for vice president with Hillary Clinton [see Nov. 7 Political Junkie], you asked why that story won't go away. I'll tell you why. Because a lot of us remember Biden's failure to investigate the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas [harassment] issue; we remember Biden's saying that his committee didn't investigate because they didn't think Hill took it seriously. At the time, I could have kicked Biden from California to Maine and back again. I still could. Biden came across then as all blow and no show. His actions in the last few years have not changed that perception. If Obama's running mate in 2012 were Hillary Rodham Clinton, I would be out working to get them elected. With Biden as his running mate, I will vote. — Dorothy Mathews, Rural Hall, N.C.

A: You are far from the only person who would love to see Clinton replace Biden on the ticket this year. She is among the nation's most popular politicians. But as I wrote in November, Clinton says it's not going to happen, Biden says it's not going to happen, and Obama — who ultimately will make the decision — says it's not going to happen. I agree.

Q: Your political knowledge amazes me, and I love listening to your comments. But I have a question about something you said in a recent podcast. Do you really think Abraham Lincoln did not visit Alaska or Hawaii when running for president because there was not quick and easy transportation like airplanes then, and not because they did not become states for almost another 100 years? — Scott Miller, Calif.

A: One of the problems I get into from time to time is that on radio it's not always obvious when I'm kidding or speaking with my tongue firmly imbedded in my cheek. I certainly was kidding this time. Oh, if you could only come watch Ron and me record the podcast. You'd be stunned at some of the things we say that — thanks to the good sense of the folks who put the podcast together — never make it to air. That may help explain why we're still both employed by NPR.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), hosted by Neal Conan with me adding color commentary, where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions, and sparkling jokes. Last week's show, with guest host Lynn Neary, focused on the sweep by Rick Santorum of the contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, plus a look at Super PACs and President Obama's reversal on them, with special guest Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics. You can listen to the segment here.

Last Wednesday's TOTN Junkie segment

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And Don't Forget ScuttleButton. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, can be found in this spot every Monday. A randomly-selected winner will be announced each week during the Political Junkie segment on NPR's Talk of the Nation. It's not too late to enter last week's contest, which you can see here. Not only is there incredible joy in deciphering the answer, but the winner gets a TOTN t-shirt!

Previous winner: Jack Davis of Columbus, Ohio.

Podcast. There's also a new episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," up every Thursday. It's hosted by my partner-in-crime, Ron Elving, and me. You can listen to the latest episode here:

Last week's podcast

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Feb. 22 — GOP debate, Mesa, Ariz. (CNN, 8 pm ET).

Feb. 28 — Primaries in Arizona and Michigan.

March 1 — GOP debate, Atlanta, Ga. (CNN, 8 pm ET).

March 3 — Washington caucus.

March 5 — GOP debate, Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (NBC).

March 6 — SUPER TUESDAY. Primaries in Georgia, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. Caucuses in Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota and Wyoming.

Mailing list. To receive a weekly email alert about the new column and ScuttleButton puzzle, contact me at

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

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This day in campaign history: Sen. Bill Armstrong of Colorado, a strong conservative and widely popular in the state, announces he will not seek a third term in 1990. The only Republican to win a Senate race there in 20 years, Armstrong says he is retiring to pursue evangelical activities (Feb. 13, 1989). The GOP will keep his seat in 1990 with the victory of Rep. Hank Brown.

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