The GOP campaign took a sharp turn away from economic issues and towards social and religious issues last week. And with the campaign moving to Alabama and Mississippi next week get ready for even more focus on religion, contraception and Republicans.
Don’t be surprised if the candidates, the news media and the GOP pump up the social conservative appeals with arguments over Mormonism and loud attacks on gay marriage, too.
All the elements are in place for just such an explosion after this week’s Super Tuesday primary and caucus results. Rick Santorum swept Tennessee, Oklahoma, and North Dakota while Newt Gingrich won his home state of Georgia. The anti-Romney vote in all of those states came from social conservatives.
The far right, Tea Party Activist, right-wing Christians and social conservatives, are still uncomfortable with Romney despite his claims to be a fellow conservative and Christian.
The lesson for Santorum and Gingrich is that their only hope going forward is to capitalize on Romney’s persistent weakness among far-right social conservatives. And given Romney’s clear advantage in advertising, fundraising and endorsements from establishment GOP leaders the appeal to hot-button social issues is the best and possibly only weapon they have in hand.
The irony in this political dynamic is the far right’s success in the 2010 mid-term elections came from their candidates’ focus on economic issues and President Obama’s healthcare plan.
The Tea Party also made its name as opponents of out-of-control government spending and unsustainable deficits. With the national debt at 14 trillion dollars and growing – not to mention unemployment stubbornly above 8 percent, the GOP was well positioned to make the case in this election that that they could manage the economy better than President Obama.
A March 4 Rasmussen poll found that 82 percent of likely voters see the economy as the most important issue in the 2012 election.
Romney has maintained that his business experience makes him the best candidate to make this case and ultimately turn the economy around.
But with the economy improving and consumer confidence climbing the social issues returned to the forefront of the right’s argument against President Obama’s re-election. The GOP’s establishment in D.C. has put out talking points on rising gas prices as their preferred new basis for attacking President Obama. But gas prices just don’t fire up the base like the social issues.
The GOP base forced the GOP establishment into the recent failed vote in the senate to support the Blunt Amendment. That law would have allowed any employer to refuse to offer contraception as part of a health care plan based on their personal objection.
That vote was not just a loser in the Senate. It also forced Romney to do one of his famous flip-flops. He first said he opposed it and then had to say he supported it.
The contraception fiasco – exacerbated by Rush Limbaugh’s insensitive comments about a female Georgetown Law student – is causing women voters to abandon the GOP in favor of Obama and the Democrats.
According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Obama is beating Romney, 55 percent to 37 percent, amongst women voters. This tracks with another recent poll from the Associated Press/Gfk that shows Obama leading Romney by 13 points among women, though tied amongst men.
This trend is also evident amongst Latino voters.
Because of the candidates’ hard line positions on illegal immigration, Latino support for the GOP is collapsing. A Fox News Latino poll this week found that Latino voters overwhelmingly favor President Obama over any of the Republican presidential candidates. If the election were held today, 70 percent of Latinos say they would vote for President Obama and only 14 percent say they will vote for Mitt Romney.
The poll also found that 90 percent of Latinos favor the DREAM Act, the measure that provides the children of illegal immigrants an earned pathway to citizenship if they enroll in college or enlist in the military. Mitt Romney has said that he would veto the DREAM Act.
The damage has already been done. Even if the eventual GOP nominee picks a Hispanic as their running mate like Florida Senator Marco Rubio or New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, it will likely not be enough to reverse this trend. 9.7 million Hispanic voters turned out in 2008 and Obama won their vote by 67 percent. In 2012, 12.2 million Hispanics are estimated to turnout.
The GOP’s preoccupation with divisive social issues in their primary is already beginning to have dire political consequences for the general election. The longer the primary drags on, the worse it will get.
Already the protracted political battle on the Republican side has already begun to do damage to the party’s brand. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal from last week found that 40% of adults say the primary process so far has given them a less favorable impression of the GOP. Only 12 percent say they have a more favorable impression.
When pollsters for the same survey asked people to describe in the GOP primary in one word or phrase, almost 70 percent responded with a negative comment. Words used by Republicans in this poll to describe their own party’s primary included “painful,” “poor choices,” “depressed,” “discouraged and “uninspiring.”
In the latest Pew poll, only 32 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of Mitt Romney and 49 percent had an unfavorable opinion. Contrast that with President Obama who has a 54 percent favorable rating and a 42 percent unfavorable, according to the same poll.
The smart money is still on Romney to be the GOP nominee. But the return of the culture wars is bleeding him before he even comes face-to-face with the Democrat in the White House.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.