With chronically high unemployment, anemic economic growth, and monstrous debt hanging over the head of America, one would assume that the 2012 presidential race would certainly be about the economy. My prediction is that it won’t be. Once the Republican primaries are over and a GOP candidate has been selected, the narrative of the campaign will turn to social issues.
Now, before Rick Santorum fans get too excited, let me clarify my point: The debate will not be a contrast between social conservatism and social liberalism. The debate will be over whether or not the Republican candidate’s views on social issues are too extreme to qualify him or her for the presidency.
“Too Extreme” will be the phrase we’ll hear over and over again from media pundits, campaign spokespeople, and political commercials. It will be the cultural narrative of the election.
You see, Barack Obama has already lost the economic debate. He’s the incumbent president who, despite making hundreds of promises and spending trillions of dollars, has not been able to rejuvenate this stalled economy. A recent Gallup poll showed that only 26% of voters approve of his handling of the economy. Obama’s most vigorous defense of his failed economic policies has been to blame the Bush administration for the problems he inherited, and insist that things would have been far worse had he not taken the steps that he did. Other than that, there’s not much he can do to escape the perception of gross incompetence, even with the help of his surrogates in the media. Blaming congressional gridlock may keep him afloat in the short term, but I don’t believe it to be a viable, long-term strategy.
Obama also won’t have an edge when it comes to foreign policy. Yes, Bin Laden was killed on his watch, but with our country having now been engaged in three wars (one more than when Obama took office), voters aren’t going to see a much of a difference between the two candidates. Besides, our military involvement overseas is no longer a hot issue for voters. We can thank the media for that. Once George W. Bush left office, the anti-war sediment being shoved down our throats every day on television suddenly came to a screeching halt.
This leaves social issues, and the only chance Obama has of beating his Republican counterpart is to paint that candidate as socially unacceptable, aka “too extreme”.
Despite being low on the priority list of voters, issues like gay rights, creationism vs evolution, global warming, and special-circumstance abortions will rise to the forefront and put the Republican candidate on the defensive.
In spite of how bad the economy is, using these issues as part of a campaign strategy could very well win the president a second term. How do I know this? I saw it happen here in Colorado last year.
Colorado is a genuine swing-state. We’ve given our electoral votes to Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, George W. Bush (twice), and Barack Obama.
When the Tea Party tsunami swept across our country in the 2010 mid-term elections, we were one of the few purple states that managed to withstand the brunt of the wave. While Colorado Republicans picked up House congressional seats, they lost the important U.S. Senate race. The sitting senator, Michael Bennet, had supported the federal stimulus, every bailout on record, and Obamacare – none of which were any more popular here than throughout the rest of the country.
In dissecting the loss of Republican Senatorial candidate Ken Buck, analysts lazily threw him into the category of unelectable Tea Party candidates like Christine O’Donnell and Sharon Angle, who proudly swung the populist banner of limited government but lacked the knowledge, background, and confidence of a serious candidate. This was not the case with Buck. Buck was a Princeton graduate, a former prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, and the District Attorney of Weld County. He never embraced the Tea Party label, despite receiving some support from the movement. He was a strong, articulate candidate. Yet, he lost to his Democratic opponent who had an approval rating of only 39% just prior to the election. How did this happen? Buck’s opposition successfully branded him as “too extreme” on social issues.
The Democratic party and outside groups concentrated all their efforts on blasting Buck relentlessly in advertisements and in public appearances for his personal opposition to certain types of birth control, his opposition to abortion in the cases of rape and incest, his belief that homosexuality is a choice, and his skepticism of man-made global warming. He didn’t campaign on any of these issues, and they’re pretty common positions in socially conservative circles, but the relentless pounding of the “too extreme” narrative caught on and worked.
Social issues often connect with people on an instinctive, emotional level. While more political-savvy people tend to look at comprehensive differences between candidates and their visions, constituents who don’t necessarily follow the political spectrum tend to vote more on their gut feeling. So, if a campaign can drive a wedge into the voters’ guts by exposing fringe (or at least minority), social viewpoints of the opposing candidate, you can bet they’ll do it.
In Buck’s case, an election that polls showed was going to be a referendum on Democratic policy-makers became about him being “too extreme”. The guy whose policies Colorado voters believed were damaging the country was rewarded with re-election. The guy whose vision they supported lost because of a handful of personal beliefs. Democratic operatives certainly took note of the successful strategy, labeling it “The Colorado Model”.
In the 2012 presidential election, there’s no doubt in my mind that this model will rise to the national level. That doesn’t mean that there’s no hope for a socially conservative Republican candidate. The strategy will most likely be used regardless of who the Republican candidate is, but some candidates are certainly more susceptible than others. The media, of course, will play their part by doing everything they can to mainstream the narrative. Despite the horrible economy, Obama’s low approval ratings, and the overall unhappiness with the direction of our country, the Republicans need to be prepared for the “Too Extreme” strategy because it could very well lose them the race.