April 11, 2007

by David Masci, Senior Research Fellow, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

The 2008 presidential election is still more than a year-and-a-half away, but some issues, such as the war in Iraq and health care, have already begun to define the contest. Others will emerge in the months ahead to catch the attention of candidates and the electorate, and at least some of these will likely belong to the clutch of issues that fuel the nation’s so-called “culture war.”

Culture war issues tend to transcend mere public policy questions, aiming instead at voters’ core ethical and religious values. Spanning a host of policy areas, they include abortion, homosexuality, certain kinds of biomedical research, physician-assisted suicide, church-state separation and the death penalty. While these and other issues will all receive some attention during the coming campaign, most will probably not have a significant impact on the outcome of the election.

Indeed, a survey conducted last year by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that the biggest such issues, abortion and gay marriage, were not priorities for voters, ranking at the very bottom of a list of 19 issues that voters deemed important. Education, the economy and national security issues were among those at the top.

On the other hand, culture war issues can vault to a much higher place on voters’ priority lists, particularly during presidential contests, when events bring them to the fore. For instance, the same-sex marriage debate rose to prominence in March 2003, when the highest court in Massachusetts stunned the nation by mandating the legalization of same-sex marriage, making that state the first to grant homosexuals the right to marry. The Massachusetts decision was subsequently amplified by events in cities and towns like San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and New Paltz, N.Y., where officials began granting marriage licenses to gay couples even though, as it turned out, they had no authority to do so. All of this produced a reaction from religious and social conservatives, leading in 2004 to an unsuccessful drive in Congress to constitutionally ban gay marriage. That same year, voters in 13 states (11 on Election Day) approved state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.

This chain of events put the same-sex marriage issue squarely on the agenda during the 2004 presidential campaign, forcing both President Bush and Sen. John Kerry to address the issue repeatedly, and ultimately aiding President Bush in his bid for re-election. To begin with, the referenda helped to mobilize the conservative, church-going vote in the 11 states where the issue was on the ballot, helping the president to win nine of these states. And although he had picked up the same nine states in 2000, he won them by an even greater margin in 2004, winning an average 2% more of the total vote in these states.

A similar dynamic seems to have unfolded throughout the country. A CNN exit poll conducted on Election Day found that the largest number of voters, 22%, cited “moral values” as the issue that most influenced their decision, more than “terrorism” or “the economy/jobs.” And among these, 80% voted for Bush. Later analysis by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed that the number of values voters may have been somewhat inflated. People who participated in the exit poll could only choose from seven issues. “Moral values” was the least specific choice offered and the most likely to be a catch-all for many of the issues not listed, such as the candidates’ integrity or leadership ability. Regardless of the true number, the fact that moral values ranked high among voters’ most important concerns is significant.

Perhaps most significantly, the gay marriage issue seems to have had an important impact in Ohio, the state that ultimately swung the election for the president. Here, having same-sex marriage on the ballot may have made the difference for the president, who won Ohio by a very slim margin. In particular, Bush’s share of the state’s black vote nearly doubled, from 9% in 2000 to 16% in 2004. Much of this increase is attributable to a nearly 20% increase in the share of very religious, church-going African-Americans who voted for the president. During the campaign, a substantial number of socially conservative black pastors in Ohio were urging their congregants to consider the gay marriage issue when they voted, which may have contributed to this boost in black support for the president.

Looking to 2008

At the moment, there is no indication that culture war issues will have the electoral impact that same-sex marriage did in 2004. At the same time, it is not too soon to look at possible ways in which some issues might insert themselves into the campaign. Two obvious choices, in addition to same-sex marriage, are abortion and stem stem cell research, issues that have consistently been in the news during the last few election cycles.

Abortion is still the 800-pound gorilla of the culture war. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which established a constitutional right to abortion, is generally thought to be a major factor in prompting conservative Christians to become more politically active.

Yet, despite its political weight, abortion often remains quiescent, in part because many candidates seeking national office raise the issue infrequently, and shy away from taking a clear position on it when they do. For instance, President Bush has tried, during past electoral campaigns, to reach out to both social conservatives and centrists, talking about his support for a “culture of life” on one hand, while also stating that “Roe v. Wade is the law of the land.” Senator Kerry made a similar effort during the 2004 campaign, expressing his support for a woman’s right to choose an abortion, while at the same time stating that he believes that “life begins at conception.”

These efforts, at least in part, reflect the fact that no large and forceful majority resides on either side of the issue. For instance, an August 2006 poll by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that a bare majority of Americans, 51%, believe abortion should be available in all or most cases, compared with 46% who say it should be illegal in all or most cases. At the same time, two-thirds of Americans say that the nation needs to find a “middle ground” when it comes to abortion.

But, as with same-sex marriage, events beyond the candidates’ control could push abortion onto the 2008 agenda. Sometime in the next two months, the Supreme Court will rule on a pair of cases that challenge the constitutionality of the federal law banning what opponents call partial birth abortion. These cases offer the court an opportunity to rethink and possibly re-write a substantial piece of abortion jurisprudence. While Roe itself would not be directly overturned, the partial birth rulings could lead to the elimination of the “health exception,” the requirement, first set down in Roe, that any law restricting access to abortion, such as the partial birth ban, allow for a waiver in cases where a mother’s health is in danger.

While there is little argument that limits or restrictions on abortion should be waived if a mother’s life is in danger, the health exception is far more controversial. Anti-abortion advocates say that allowing abortion restrictions to be waived for health concerns essentially eviscerates the law because a doctor can determine that almost anything, including emotional stress, will impact a woman’s health. As a result, anti-abortion advocates in Congress did not include a health exception in their legislative ban, thereby laying the cornerstone for a constitutional challenge to the law.

If the Federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban law is upheld, except for the narrowest of reasons, and the court rules that the health exception is not necessary, it would lead to a dramatic shift in what states can and cannot do to restrict abortion. States could then pass restrictions that would be easier to enforce, and many state legislatures, especially in the more conservative South and Midwest, would most likely attempt to amend existing laws to exclude the health exception. For pro-abortion-rights forces, such a ruling would be seen as nothing short of disaster, prompting them to pull every alarm within reach in an effort to bring the issue squarely into the limelight.

These circumstances could dramatically raise abortion’s profile in the coming campaign. Some of the current crop of presidential candidates may be forced to confront the issue more directly than Bush and Kerry ever had to. For instance, Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton, who is pro-choice, but lately has raised some liberal eyebrows by calling abortion “a tragic choice,” might feel compelled to eschew any rhetoric that might be interpreted as an effort to triangulate. Or former Massachusetts governor and GOP hopeful Mitt Romney, who recently declared that he had changed his mind on the issue and no longer supports abortion rights, might find his shift in position subject to much greater media and voter scrutiny.

On the other hand, while a candidate like Rudolph Giuliani who supports abortion rights might be hurt in the primaries, he could be helped in the general election by a pro-life victory in the Supreme Court. The former New York mayor might then be the best positioned among the GOP contenders to reach out to centrists, who despite having some moral qualms about abortion, might not want Roe to be overturned or made meaningless.

As in the case of abortion, the place of gay marriage in the coming campaign will also depend on future events. In the coming year, high courts in California, Maryland and Connecticut will determine whether their state constitutions guarantee gay people a right to marry. If one or more of these courts, especially in the nation’s most populous state, California, decide in favor of gay marriage, it could elevate the importance of the issue in 2008.

Here are some possibilities: Pollsshow that a majority of Americans (usually between 55% and 65%) oppose same-sex marriage. At the same time, a small majority also supports civil unions. So a decision by these state courts to follow the lead of Massachusetts and mandate gay marriage could raise the ire of a substantial portion of the electorate, especially religious voters.

If gay marriage became a bigger issue, Republican presidential candidates who are associated with opposition to same-sex marriage could benefit, especially in the GOP primaries. One possible beneficiary would be Gov. Romney, who won plaudits from social conservatives for leading the fight against gay marriage in Massachusetts after the 2003 court decision.

Other leading Republican candidates could potentially be hurt by a greater emphasis on same-sex marriage, especially in primaries in more conservative states. Although Giuliani, for instance, opposes gay marriage, he supports gay rights (including civil unions), has marched in gay pride parades and even lived with a gay couple for a time. And while Arizona Sen. John McCain also opposes gay marriage, he voted against the federal marriage amendment in Congress.

No similar legislative or legal event on the horizon appears likely to vault the stem cell issue into the spotlight, not even the current Senate debate on legislation that would relax federal regulations on federal funding of such research. However, polls show that Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the controversy and several states, including California and New York, are already funding stem cell research while others are considering loosening research restrictions. Further, a majority of the public supports stem cell research, including research employing embryos (56% in a recent PRC/Pew Forum poll), as do all major Democratic and some Republican presidential candidates. As a result, it could become an important — if not major — issue in 2008 should any of the candidates choose to highlight it.

The stem cell debate gained prominence in the political arena after President Bush issued an executive order in 2001 prohibiting federal research money from being used to experiment on new embryonic stem cell lines. By 2004, Democrats were pushing to bring the issue into the presidential campaign. Most notably, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, caused a stir by claiming that if John Kerry were elected president, quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve “would walk again.” Ronald Reagan Jr., also made news, appearing at the Democratic Party’s nominating convention to call for greater funding for embryonic stem cell research.

In the 2006 campaign, the stem cell issue gained some electoral traction and may have had an impact on races in a number of states, including Wisconsin and Missouri. The issue received greater attention during the campaign after actor and Parkinson’s sufferer Michael Jay Fox made a series of controversial ads for Democratic candidates who support stem cell research.

Still, it remains to be seen whether Democrats in 2008 will be able to make the stem cell debate a major campaign issue. Efforts to do so during the 2004 election did not produce any appreciable results. And the issue’s impact in 2006, while greater, was limited to a small number of states. Furthermore, the three major GOP candidates are all less opposed to embryonic stem cell research than is President Bush. Giuliani favors it. And while Romney and McCain oppose creating embryos for research, they support using embryos that are slated to be discarded from fertility clinics, something the president adamantly opposes.