New Culture War Will Help Rick Santorum, Barack Obama

The political convergence of social issues benefited Santorum in Midwest, and will benefit Obama nationally.

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It never rains but it pours. With the Planned Parenthood vs. Susan G. Komen fight followed by the Prop 8 decision invalidating California's anti-gay marriage law, and the Obama administration's determination that Catholic-affiliated institutions must provide healthcare plans that include coverage for birth control, social issues are suddenly front and center in the 2012 conversation.

This political convergence figures to benefit former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum—and President Barack Obama.

Santorum must feel like the good lord is smiling on him. Not only did he sweep Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri last night, but the victories will give him a moment in the media spotlight at a time when social issues are at the fore. These issues reside in Santorum's political wheelhouse with the conservative base. He is beloved on the right because of his reputation as an unapologetic cultural warrior, willing to put the power of the government to the service of family values issues (what libertarians derisively call a "big government conservative").

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

Not only that, but former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is particularly vulnerable on these issues. First, the version of Romney which challenged Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994 tried to run to the liberal lion's left, saying he would be better on gay and lesbian issues than Kennedy and fiercely defending his prochcoice credentials. And as governor, Romney was silent on a Massachusetts law that required healthcare plans to cover contraception, and issued a rule requiring all hospitals— even Catholic-run ones—to provide emergency contraception to rape victims.

Second, Romney has reversed course across the board on social issues, including Tuesday blasting the Obama administration for the contraception rule. But that only underscores his more fundamental vulnerability: that he's a robotically inauthentic conservative of convenience whom the right cannot trust on their core issues. As the Independent Women's Forum's Charlotte Hays wrote this morning, Romney "speaks conservatism like a second language--that is because it is a second language for him."

But to the extent that Santorum, Romney, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are focusing the GOP nomination process on which one is the strongest cultural conservative, it will only help Barack Obama, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, if they're talking about birth control and gay marriage, they're not talking about jobs, which remains the overwhelming number on concern for swing voters. Further, there is a marked gap between the general public and the GOP base on these social issues, especially gay marriage and birth control.

[ Read Laura Chapin: Mitt Romney and the GOP's War on Birth Control]

As my bloleague Brad Bannon noted Tuesday:

A majority of Americans now favor gay marriage. The voters who most strongly support President Barack Obama, young Americans, overwhelmingly favor same sex marriage and these millennials will make up an even bigger part of the electorate than in 2008. The coming GOP obsession against gay marriage will light a spark that will generate higher turnout among young voters who are not as enthusiastic about Barack Obama as they were in 2008.

And that's gay marriage, which at least is still ostensibly controversial. Contraception simply isn't. That, as the Washington Post's Ezra Klein perceptively writes today, is why the White House is eager to have the birth control fight. Ezra cites a raft of polling data showing not only that Catholics are more supportive of the contraception requirement than the rest of the country, but also that the demographic most supportive of the provision are young voters and women.

Those two demographics are important here for a key reason: they were crucial to Obama's victory in 2008. Third Way crunched the numbers earlier this month and found that the "Obama Independents" — the swing group that proved crucial to his 2008 victory — are, as Ryan Lizza put it, "disproportionately young, female and secular."

"In 2012, Independents are likely to comprise the highest proportion of the electorate since 1976, and winning them will be crucial to victory," write Third Way's Michelle Diggles and Lanae Erickson. "If President Obama woos the vast majority [of his independent voters] back, he can be reelected.

[ See a slide show of 10 issues driving Obama's re-election campaign.]

Klein goes on to cite another poll showing that 84 percent of Americans view family planning, including contraception, as a basic part of healthcare. It's only a controversy in the most doctrinaire, Medieval reaches of the Catholic Church's leadership.

The crux of the fight will come down to messaging, which is why Church leaders and the GOP candidates are framing it as a religious liberty battle. To the extent that the Obama administration and campaign and their allies can keep the focus on birth control, it could go a long way toward securing a second Obama term in office.