Is Santorum Too Socially Conservative to Defeat Obama?

Is Santorum Too Socially Conservative to Defeat Obama?

By David Paul Kuhn - February 19, 2012

From Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, debates over social issues have helped Republicans win the White House. That would almost certainly not be true for Rick Santorum. Polls indicate that Santorum’s strict social conservatism would threaten Republicans’ ability to defeat Barack Obama.

Santorum now leads the GOP field in national polls. He is commonly discussed as a safe, straight-laced and steady conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. But he would also be the most socially conservative Republican nominee in the modern day.

Yet the media has also broadly misreported why this matters. Those Americans who are most offended by Santorum’s positions will likely not vote for any Republican.

Conversely, Democrats have long struggled with the fact that, for example, the same causes that motivate progressive women’s groups have not mobilized women more broadly to the party’s side in presidential elections. This is one reason that, while Democrats generally win women overall, Republicans generally win the majority of white women.

In the 1980 election, when feminism was more hotly debated, only 7 percent of women said that abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment were their top issue. Instead, women and men both said that they were overwhelmingly concerned about the economy, according to exit polls. We can expect the economy to dominate in 2012 as well.

Yet Santorum would represent a different breed of GOP nominee. Santorum’s social views diverge not only from the American mainstream but from -- and here’s where it counts -- the independent voters who elect American presidents.

Santorum’s tone presents another problem. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were not culture warriors. Neither is Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a contemporary social conservative political leader. These men spoke, and speak, delicately about social issues. They choose phrases like “culture of life.” Reagan famously told social conservative leaders in Dallas, “I know that you can’t endorse me, but I only brought that up because I want you to know that I endorse you.”

Santorum does not merely endorse. He preaches. And, as with Mitt Romney’s comments about class, Democrats will spend millions informing Americans about those sermons should they face Santorum. 

Santorum’s vulnerabilities, however, exceed controversial comments. Santorum’s issue is not that where he once sat undercuts where he now stands; his problem is where he stands.


Santorum advocates abolishing abortion without exemptions for rape or incest. This may inspire more support within the GOP than it turns off. That’s especially true among Republican women. Thirty-six percent of Republican women believe abortion should be illegal in all circumstances, according to Gallup polling, while 22 percent of Republican men say the same. 

The majority of Republicans do believe that abortion should be legal under certain conditions, Gallup finds. But if Republicans felt strongly that some abortions must be legal, they’d likely be Democrats. 

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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