Conventional wisdom holds that social issues won’t have much impact on the 2016 presidential election. Americans are more concerned about jobs and the economy, and besides, some recent polls show that Americans are less religious and moving to the left on social issues.
That’s the conventional wisdom. But there’s a problem – conventional wisdom can be, and often is, wrong.
The fact is, social issues are bound to play a role in 2016, possibly a big one – if only because most of the Republican candidates keep talking about them. The ever-expanding field includes three men who are known chiefly for their opposition to marriage equality, legal abortion and church-state separation.
It’s true that Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson are considered second-tier candidates (maybe third-tier, actually), but even some of the GOP front-runners sound like tent evangelists these days.
Consider Jeb Bush, who is announcing his candidacy today. Bush has a checkered history when it comes to church-state relations, and that’s putting it charitably. I like to think of him as the nation’s first “faith-based” governor. As Florida’s chief executive, he championed a private school voucher plan that diverted tax money to mainly religious schools. (The Florida Supreme Court invalidated the program, but it is being exported to other states. Nevada adopted a version of it recently.)
Bush established “faith-based” prisons in the state and went so far as to sponsor a school reading project centered on the Chronicles of Narnia, a Christian allegory. He also rammed special legislation though the statehouse that made it possible for Domino’s Pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan to create his own “Catholic” town called Ave Maria.
Bush’s intervention in the Terri Schiavo case is well known, but his vociferous opposition to legal abortion has attracted less attention. Bush once described himself as “probably the most pro-life governor in modern times” and on several occasions intervened to prevent minors or incapacitated women from obtaining abortions. As governor, he signed legislation outlawing certain types of abortions; he has now thrown his support behind a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks. He has praised efforts to curtail Americans’ access to birth control and criticized the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act.
And let’s look at Scott Walker. The Wisconsin governor -- techincally not a candidate yet, but he sure sounds like one -- for many years was more interested in busting unions than pushing religion. (Although, as a member of the legislature, Walker did throw a holy fit when a prison hired a Wiccan priestess as chaplain.) Suddenly Walker is saying he’s not sure President Barack Obama is a Christian, refusing to say if he accepts the reality of evolution and calling for strict anti-abortion laws.
Here’s another reason social issues will loom large for at least some of the campaign: marriage equality. In a matter of weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court will hand down a decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, a case that may extend same-sex marriage nationwide. Some states, chiefly Indiana, North Carolina and Michigan, are already passing legislation designed to blunt the effects of this ruling by making it harder for gay couples to get married, adopt children and so on.
The Obergefell decision will lead to a new round of battles. Some states will seek to pass legislation granting the owners of for-profit business (such as florists, bakers, photographers, caterers, etc.) the right to refuse service to same-sex couples under the guise of “religious freedom.” Some will even try to extend this “right” to government officials, such as magistrates and licensing clerks.
GOP candidates will be forced to take a stand on these bills. Most will be happy to endorse them because that gives them an opportunity to shore up conservative bona fides with some of that old-fashioned gay bashing. (Walker has already endorsed a constitutional amendment to overturn a ruling that hasn’t come down yet.) Some unannounced candidates – I’m talking to you, Bobby Jindal – have been riding the anti-LGBT wave for months.
There’s one more reason why social issues aren’t going away quietly: The Religious Right doesn’t want them to – and the Religious Right is too powerful a force in the GOP to be ignored.
Religious Right organizations have already sponsored several “beauty pageants” to size up the candidates. More are on the way this summer and fall. Although I strongly disagree with the agenda of the Religious Right, I acknowledge that the movement’s voters are often a force to be reckoned with come Election Day because they tend to turn out.
Simply put, issues like marriage equality, abortion, the role of religion in public schools and yes, even what pronoun to use when referring to Caitlyn Jenner matter to these voters. GOP aspirants can’t dodge them – and many don’t want to.
Polls do indicate that the long-term prognosis for the Religious Right is not good. Its core constituency is aging; millennials, even self-identified Republican ones, are openly accepting of LGBT rights and same-sex marriage. In addition, interest in institutionalized religion is waning in America. (But don’t confuse this with a lack of interest in religion generally; Americans remain a spiritual people.) As fundamentalist churches lose members, they will be less effective as units for political organizing.
The long-term demographics are interesting but none of this is going to play out so quickly that it upsets the political applecart next year. What will matter is turnout and what type of coalition each party’s standard-bearer can cobble together. A candidate doesn’t necessarily win because lots of people agree with him or her; a candidate wins because the people who agree with him or her take the time to go to the polls.
The Republican hopefuls know this – and they know what types of messages will engage their base of so-called “values voters.” Most Americans don’t want a campaign focused on social issues. But a close election that hinges on turning out base voters may create a perfect storm where the “culture wars” become powerful enough to push other issues out of the picture.