McCain and Obama Largely Avoid Abortion, Gay Marriage

Social issues are largely out of the spotlight in the presidential election

Some groups want to make abortion and other social issues important this cycle.

Some groups want to make abortion and other social issues important this cycle.

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So, a few carefully worded equivocations aside, why all the tip-toeing around? There is at least one easy answer. "Both Obama and McCain have said they want to reach out to the middle," says Brian Schaffner, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. "Abortion's not something you talk about when you're trying to win the center."

There's no question the country remains deeply divided on these matters. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted last month found that likely voters support Roe by a 63-to-33 percent margin, but nearly 40 percent say abortion should be illegal in "most" or "all" cases. The same poll shows 55 percent of voters oppose same-sex marriage, though a majority say they don't want the government to be involved in banning the practice. And while nearly 9 in 10 likely voters believe the president's power to appoint Supreme Court justices, who often have the final word on social policy, will be "very important" or "somewhat important" to their vote this fall, the campaigns seem to have recognized that with the economy struggling, they have to pick their battles.

For the time being, in other words, the culture war's very divisiveness may keep them at bay. That is just fine with Obama, who is making a concerted effort to reach out to evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics, two groups that have supported Republicans for decades. "Obama wants to address social issues in a way that tries to take the sharp edge off the wedge," says Mark Silk, a professor of religion in public life at Trinity College. Instead of focusing on the legality of abortion, he is trying to find common ground with anti-abortion-rights voters, focusing on ways to decrease the number of unintended teen pregnancies and ensure access to affordable birth control. With Obama's approval, the Democratic Party included new language in the party platform that emphasizes the importance not just of reducing the number of abortions but of providing support to women who decide to have a child. So far, polls don't show him gaining much ground. Twenty-four percent of evangelicals say they're planning to support Obama, compared with 68 percent who support McCain. (In 2004, Bush won the evangelical vote, 78 to 21.) But with the candidates deadlocked among Catholics, Obama still has plenty of incentive to stay above the old cultural fray. "I am absolutely convinced that the culture wars are so '90s," Obama has said. "We're tired of arguing about the same old stuff. And I am convinced we can win that argument."

Shaping elections. McCain seems more than happy to follow suit, if not for quite the same reasons. Since his campaign began, he has steered clear of the electoral strategy of George W. Bush, who rallied conservative voters to the polls by talking about a "culture of life" and supporting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. "McCain doesn't seem to have any particular enthusiasm for talking about this stuff," says Steven Wagner, a Republican pollster who was a key strategist for Bush's Catholic outreach efforts. While he has tried to reassure conservatives with soothing words about judicial appointments, his campaign is targeted mostly at the working class and independents. When a reporter recently asked McCain to clarify his stance on gay adoption, he replied: "My answer is, it's not the reason why I'm running for president of the United States."

Presidential elections are shaped by much more than just the words of candidates, of course. Even if Obama and McCain are leery of diving back into the culture war, independent groups are keeping the fires burning. In the past few weeks, conservatives have been trying to depict Obama as a radical on abortion, raising questions about his vote as an Illinois state senator against legislation designed to protect fetuses that survived abortion procedures. Initiatives that would ban same-sex marriage are on the ballots in California, Arizona, and Florida. Conservative and liberal groups alike are mobilizing massive get-out-the-vote efforts, raising more than $30 million combined for advertising campaigns that will kick off in October. "I'm sure that there will be millions of people of faith [for whom] these moral issues will have a dominant place," says Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family Action.