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Is it time for the Republican Party to abandon social conservatism?

That question likely creates knots in the stomachs of pro-life individuals who also believe ardently in the defense of traditional marriage. But in the wake of President Barack Obama’s victory, an ongoing search has commenced for the basis of defeat and, simultaneously, for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. Naturally, some are certainly wondering where social issues fit into the mix.

And who could overlook the anxious excitement among some who’d like nothing more than to gleefully scribble an obituary for the nation’s so-called “religious right.” But are these detractors drawing conclusions too quickly — or are they correct in their assertions? With less than 72 hours passing since the conclusion of the electoral race, it’s hard to tell.

Before we get into the specifics and explore these claims, let’s examine where the general public falls on the two, key social issues of importance: abortion and same-sex marriage. To do this, we can look closely at FOX News’ exit polling data, which provides information about how voters view these issues.

 

WHERE AMERICANS STAND ON ABORTION

When asked to provide an assessment of whether abortion should be permitted, 59 percent of the 5,131 voters consulted said that the procedure should be “legal,” with 36 percent choosing “illegal.” Now, it’s important to note that people are only being given two options here — something that pigeonholes voters into choosing extremes, despite having potentially mixed views on the multifaceted subject.

When a separate question was asked — one that allowed voters to choose between different, more specified options, the results were fascinating. Only 29 percent of the nation said that abortion should be “legal in all cases,” although a combined 59 percent said that in should at least be “legal in some cases.” But on the flip side, 23 percent said that it should be “illegal in most cases,” with an additional 13 percent calling for it not to be allowed in any case. Here’s the table:

Should Republicans Abandon Social Conservatism? | Abortion, Gay Marriage

Photo Credit: FOX News

From a policy standpoint, there’s no doubt here that the current schema is more favorable to the pro-choice movement (and that, if we’re strictly speaking about policy, pro-choice candidates may resonate with more voters). But, as stated, abortion is a complex subject — one that can’t be measured by one, or even two, polling questions.

In May, TheBlaze highlighted some of the ideological transformations that may be afoot when it comes to the issue of abortion. Among Gallup’s fascinating findings at the time, the proportion of Americans calling themselves pro-choice is at a record low — a decline that is seen among all three U.S. political groups (Democrat, Republican and Independent).

Overall, the 2012 results showed that 50 percent of the nation calls itself “pro-life,” with only 41 percent claiming to be “pro-choice.” In 2011, 49 percent of the nation called itself pro-choice, with an additional 45 percent claiming that they were pro-life. In 2010, the results were similar, as 45 percent were pro-choice and 47 percent were pro-life.

The 2012 number clearly show a shift in personal perspective away from abortion. But — let’s not forget the important difference between the Gallup question and the information being explored in the exit poll. While Gallup was asking for personal perspective, the exit poll focused upon policy. The point here: It’s entirely possible to call oneself pro-life, but to still favor laws that give women “choice” on the abortion front.

 

WHERE AMERICANS STAND ON GAY MARRIAGE

Same-sex marriage is another highly-controversial issue that social conservatives have overwhelmingly rejected. While politically-flammable, it’s also a subject that is seemingly easier to measure — and one on which Americans are firmly divided.

According to FOX News’ exit polls, 49 percent of the nation believe that their state should “legally recognize same-sex marriage.” An additional 46 percent, however, do not agree with this sentiment. On yet another issue, America is divided (however, the nation is more equally split on the policy perspective associated with this issue than it is on abortion).

Should Republicans Abandon Social Conservatism? | Abortion, Gay Marriage

According to Gallup’s 2012 findings, 50 percent of the nation supports gay marriage and 48 percent does not believe that nuptials for same-sex couples should be legally affirmed. In the past, The Blaze also analyzed the 2011 numbers, which found for the first time since Gallup began asking questions about same-sex marriage, that more than 50 percent of the American public supported legalizing gay unions (53 percent to be exact).

While the 2012 numbers showed somewhat of a decline in support when compared to the previous year, the affirmative proportion stands firm, at least for now, at 50 percent. The nation remains divided, but over the past few years there has been an intense effort to push for equal rights in relation to homosexual marriage — actions that may be paying off for proponents.

In 1996, only 27 percent of the nation supported gay marriage. By 2004, this proportion had grown to 42 percent. This year, despite the 2011 versus 2012 disparity, the situation is evolving. Normally, allowing constituents to vote on gay marriage has had disastrous results for those hoping to see the institution legalized.

But this electoral cycle, three states — Washington, Maryland and Maine — legalized same-sex unions (and with the population voting in favor of these rights). Previously, 32 similar attempts across the nation failed, with North Carolina’s earlier this year serving as the latest example.

And, as The Christian Post reported, “While voters in Washington, Maine and Maryland voted to allow same-sex marriage, voters in Minnesota turned back a proposed constitutional amendment that would have prohibited same-sex marriage if it were approved by law.” Plainly stated: One cannot help but wonder if the legalities are taking a turn in favor of gay nuptials.

All things considered, while abortion appears to be evolving based on new technologies and a slight pro-life tilt, gay marriage is moving in a much more rapid direction (one that is unfavorable to those who fervently espouse traditional marriage).

 

ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION & THE AMERICAN PUBLIC

Another issue, immigration, based on exit polls, warrants a quick look. Overwhelmingly, Americans said that illegals who are already in the United States (65 percent agreed) should be granted “a chance to apply for legal status.”

Only 28 percent of the nation embraces the notion that these individuals should be deported back “to the country they came from” (on the whole, Romney voters overwhelmingly embraced deportation). Here’s the table showcasing these results (once again, respondents weren’t given many options and were forced to choose two extremes):

Should Republicans Abandon Social Conservatism? | Abortion, Gay Marriage

Clearly, both parties need to come up with palatable methods for protecting the borders to prevent further permeation. However, it appears that, for those who already reside here, a path to citizenship is the will of the people (at least according to this exit poll).

Perhaps Romney’s views on “self-deportation” did harm him on this issue, especially among Latinos (however, immigration was not one of the most pressing issues this cycle in voters’ minds). In a column this week, commentator Charles Krauthammer proclaimed that the GOP must embrace “amnesty” if it wishes to reform itself.

“The problem is hardly structural. It requires but a single policy change: Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty,” he wrote. “Use the word. Shock and awe — full legal normalization (just short of citizenship) in return for full border enforcement.”

 

HOW SOCIAL ISSUES PLAYED INTO THE 2012 ELECTION

Gay marriage, abortion and immigration, aside, there are many other social issues that emerge in the American political schema. However, it the first two issues that stand out as the most relevant, controversial and, arguably, the most talked about.

Based on Romney’s electoral loss, numerous outlets are questioning whether the “religious right,” a group that is monumentally pro-life and anti-gay marriage — and the cohort that helped George W. Bush win his 2004 election — is beginning to implode and lose its relevance.

“On multiple levels, Tuesday’s election results raised questions about the Christian right’s agenda on American politics, eight years after the movement helped sweep President George W. Bush into a second term and opened the era of state bans on same-sex marriage,” CNN’s Dan Gilgoff wrote.

Religion News Service, like CNN, framed the electoral losses and their impact on religious conservatives in the following terms:

Instead of the promised victories, the religious right encountered defeat at almost every turn. Not only did Obama win convincingly, but Democrats held onto the Senate – and the power to confirm judges – and Wisconsin elected the nation’s first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin.

Meanwhile, Republican senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock went down to unanticipated defeat in large part because of their strongly anti-abortion views, and an effort in Florida to restrict abortion failed. For the first time ever, same-sex marriage proponents won on ballots in four out of four states, while marijuana for recreational use was legalized in two out of three states where the question was on the ballot.

Even Michele Bachmann, an icon among Christian conservatives, barely held onto her House seat in Minnesota while Tea Party favorite Allen West lost his congressional district in Florida.

Considering that Obama, a president who is staunchly pro-choice and who is actively advocating for same-sex marriage, was able to win, in the minds of some, showcases that the Christian right’s influence may be waning. However, such a standpoint fails to take into account other issues going on in America. Elections are multifaceted. Even within a voting bloc, there are intervening issues to consider that have a profound impact on turnout and candidate selection.

The Catholic vote, for instance, has also been a focus of discussion in the wake of the election. Despite Obama’s marriage and abortion views, which run contrary to Catholic teaching, he still won the Catholic cohort. This development was particularly troubling to some conservatives, especially following the Obama administration’s controversial contraceptive mandate, which was widely seen as an assault on religious liberty. However, numerous intervening factors, including views on immigration, economics and ethnicity, may have swayed the Catholic vote.

“Maybe Hispanic Catholics were not as moved by religious liberty-type arguments as by immigration and economics,” John Green, a religion and politics expert at the University of Akron, told CNN, thus emphasizing the role that Latinos played in Obama’s re-election.

This is, of course, just a mere snapshot into the presidential race. When considering how much social issues played into the campaign, it’s essential that one must, after exploring where the American people stand on these fronts, also assess which issues, overall, were on voters’ minds when they headed into the polls.

While strong opinions abound over social issues in the U.S., when exploring the subjects of most importance to the voting public, abortion and gay marriage barely registered. In essence, this makes sense. After all, everyone knew that the economy was the number one issue this election cycle.

CNN’s early exit poll results the day of the election found that, by far, economic conditions were on voters’ minds, followed by health care, the deficit and foreign policy. So, while abortion and gay marriage likely shaped, to a lesser degree, how people decided to vote, they weren’t highly motivating factors (or issues that were at the forefront of peoples’ minds).

Considering voters’ priorities, it’s no wonder social conservatism seemingly played a small role in the election.

 

IS SOCIAL CONSERVATISM TO BLAME FOR ROMNEY’S LOSS?

So, considering these issues, was social conservatism at the center of Romney’s loss? There are, of course, one-issue voters who will reject or even accept a candidate based on a solitary social stance. When it comes to gay marriage and abortion, in fact, this dynamic is prevalent. Currently, conservatives and liberals, alike, are jockeying over whether the party is too right-of-center or – not conservative enough.

Still, looking beyond this debate and focusing more on strategy, others recognize that the Republican Party’s future likely hinges upon reaching out to groups that have not traditionally, at least in recent decades, embraced the GOP — young people, the religiously-unaffiliated (a fast-growing group) and minorities (the latter of which tends, depending on the sub group, to be highly religious).

“Defeat can be a very clarifying moment,” Faith and Freedom Coalition president Ralph Reed told The Wall Street Journal. “We need to find a way to combine core principles with an outreach strategy that is more welcome to voters who haven’t always been reached out to.”

While this ideal is certainly true, especially when looking at ongoing demographic changes, it’s impossible not to miss out on the overwhelming theme that this election was all about the economy. Building upon this notion, but with additional framing, lawyer and blogger John Hinderaker noted his belief that America, despite what the right has conventionally contended, is not, economically-speaking, a center-right nation.

“This belief is one that we conservatives have cherished for a long time, but as of today, I think we have to admit that it is false. America is a deeply divided country with a center-left plurality,” Hinderaker wrote. “This plurality includes a vast number of citizens who describe themselves as moderates, but whose views on the issues are identical or similar to those that have historically been deemed liberal.”

The blogger continued, providing a framing of the American public’s purportedly troubling reliance upon and penchant for government subsidies:

Put bluntly, the takers outnumber the makers. The polls in this election cycle diverged in a number of ways, but in one respect they were remarkably consistent: every poll I saw, including those that forecast an Obama victory, found that most people believed Mitt Romney would do a better job than Barack Obama on the economy. So with the economy the dominant issue in the campaign, why did that consensus not assure a Romney victory? Because a great many people live outside the real, competitive economy. Over 100 million receive means tested benefits from the federal government, many more from the states. And, of course, a great many more are public employees. To many millions of Americans, the economy is mostly an abstraction.

Then there is the fact that relatively few Americans actually pay for the government they consume. To a greater extent than any other developed nation, we rely on upper-income people to finance our federal government. When that is combined with the fact that around 40% of our federal spending isn’t paid for at all–it is borrowed–it is small wonder that many self-interested voters are happy to vote themselves more government. Mitt Romney proclaimed that Barack Obama was the candidate of “free stuff,” and voters took him at his word.

It is quite possible that the economic uncertainties, teamed with the aforementioned sentiments, played a major role in Romney’s loss. But — as for social issues, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence at the moment that they were central to the candidate’s fall.

 

A FINAL NOTE ON SOCIAL ISSUES 

It’s far too early to proclaim that the religious right is losing its influence. After all, different election cycles call for renewed and divergent focuses. In 2004, national security was on everyone’s minds; in 2012, it was the economy.

We do know that religion is slightly declining in American society and that, of course, has a potential impact on electoral prospects. However, the obituary-writing and dismissive nature of social conservatism seems pre-mature. While a continued exploration is warranted, so is a look into government policy and its impact on dependency — and how these elements translate into votes for and against the nation’s major political parties.

All this in mind, keeping an eye on social issues is important, especially considering the trajectory that gay marriage is on. While it is entirely possible that social issues didn’t hamper Romney’s chances, if the nation continues to be more accepting of gay marriage, the party’s adherence to traditional unions (or, at least the sometimes tough, though principled, words on the issue) may harm future GOP candidates at the polls.

As for abortion, the issue remains complex. From a policy standpoint, the nation continues to favor pro-choice policy. But personal views seem to be trending in a pro-life direction.

Considering these elements, it would benefit the Republican Party to consider its messaging and how it markets its social — and economic — policies. Very few issues in this world are black and white in practice. Considering the grey areas and finding balance, while remaining true to conviction can be a difficult practice. However, it’s something that both parties should regularly be doing, as social change comes to fruition.

Should Republicans Abandon Social Conservatism? | Abortion, Gay Marriage

Remember, while Obama captured the majority of the votes, the election was somewhat close. Obama won over 50 percent of the nation and Romney resonated with 48 percent of voters. Thus, an embrace of conservative values hasn’t yet diminished to dangerously-low levels or else the disparity between the candidates would have been greater.

In the Washington Post, Michael Gerson wrote the following about the GOP’s challenge in the coming years — words that are certainly fascinating (but ideals that not all conservatives will embrace):

This is the conservative task over the next few years: not to preserve a rigid ideology but to reconstruct a political appeal along improved but principled lines.

Some of the most important intellectual groundwork is needed on the role of government. Mitt Romney had a five-part plan to encourage job creation. He lacked a public philosophy that explained government’s valid role in meeting human needs. Suburban women heard little about improved public education. Single women, particularly single mothers, heard little about their struggles, apart from an off-putting Republican critique of food stamps. Blue-collar workers in, say, Ohio heard little about the unique challenges that face declining industrial communities. Latinos heard little from Republicans about promoting equal opportunity and economic mobility.

In the end, rather than abandoning social conservatism, it seems that the GOP has two major tasks at hand moving forward: Heed Reed’s advice to refine an outreach strategy that reaches new populations, while remaining true to values, and figure out how to tackle and address the pitfalls of government dependency.

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