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Social-issues voters know where they stand and how they’ll cast their ballots. President Obama and Mitt Romney offer them clear-cut choices.


(top) Mobilizing: Social-issue warriors. (bottom) Winning more battles: Gay-rights supporters.(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta (top), AP Photo/Noah Berger (bottom))

Voters planning to choose their president based solely on abortion or gay rights can tune out all campaign rhetoric from now until November: If you support abortion rights and same-sex marriage, you are voting for President Obama. If you oppose those two things, you are voting for Mitt Romney.

Reproduction and homosexuality, the bookends of the loosely defined concept of “social issues,” are fundamentally different from more dispassionate topics such as economics or foreign policy. On economics, everyone agrees on the objective—growth and jobs are good; recession and unemployment are bad—and the debate centers on how to get to that goal. Social issues, by contrast, conjure up strong, gut-level emotions and deeply held convictions in voters who disagree fiercely about where the country should go.


There is no middle ground, said Concerned Women for America President Penny Young Nance, an antiabortion, traditional-marriage conservative. To illustrate, she told National Journal about her conversation with a would-be candidate who “really didn’t want to make a decision” about abortion. “He wanted to have it both ways. He was miserable. I said, ‘Look, you’ve got to choose. Because otherwise neither side is going to like you, and we’re going to keep harassing you.’ ”

Both Obama and Romney understand this political dynamic, which is why it is so easy to draw distinctions between them. Obama supports abortion rights; Romney opposes them. Obama backs gay marriage; Romney opposes it. Obama rejects a “cramped and narrow” constitutional view; Romney says that the Constitution is “timeless and defining” and that interpretations of it cannot “evolve.”



The antiabortion and abortion-rights movements have not always been comfortable with their chosen presidential candidates this year, but they can easily rally their troops around Romney or Obama by comparing their guy to the other guy. The opposing sides even use the same language. “The difference between President Obama and Mitt Romney on choice is clear and stark,” NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan said in May when her group endorsed Obama. “President Obama wants to uphold a woman’s right to choose; Romney wants to outlaw abortion.”

“The difference between Governor Romney and President Obama couldn’t be clearer,” Jane Abraham, chairwoman of the board for the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List, said when the group endorsed Romney in April, after former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania dropped out of the Republican primary race. “It is the responsibility of pro-life voters to now unite behind Governor Romney.”

Obama has said repeatedly that he wants to find “common ground” on abortion, emphasizing the need to reduce unwanted pregnancies and encourage adoption. As president, however, he has consistently supported abortion rights in ways that have alienated the antiabortion movement. For example, he cut off federal support for a women’s health program in Texas because the state Legislature blocked groups such as Planned Parenthood from participating in it. Republicans, including Romney, decried the move. Planned Parenthood’s political wing endorsed Obama in May and launched a $1.4 million ad campaign saying that Romney is “out of touch and wrong for women.”

Yet abortion-rights groups were furious with Obama when he caved (all too easily, they say) by allowing insurance coverage for abortion to be stripped from his health care law. Abortion “is a common and necessary aspect of health care. One in three women will have an abortion before the age of 45. If you have a heart condition or breast cancer, it costs seven to 10 thousand dollars,” said National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill.


Still, Obama’s position on abortion was never in question. Romney’s thinking on abortion, by contrast, can most generously be described as evolving. In 2002, Romney said he supported state funding of abortion through Medicaid. In 1994, he ran for Senate as an abortion-rights candidate. He claims now that he has always personally opposed abortion and that his earlier, softer political stance stemmed from governing in a state supportive of abortion rights.

Romney’s conversion to a solid antiabortion position occurred in 2004 and 2005, around the time he began contemplating a presidential bid. He says that his ideas gelled after discussing the rudiments of embryonic stem cells with scientists. Shortly thereafter, he vetoed state legislation allowing a “morning-after” birth-control drug to be sold over the counter. The Massachusetts Legislature overrode his veto.

Even now, Romney’s position on abortion can be confusing. He refused to sign a pledge that would have committed him to appointing only antiabortion Cabinet members. He appeased social conservatives later by promising to choose an antiabortion vice presidential candidate. He also wrote his own abortion pledge, published last year in the National Review, promising to get rid of government funding for abortion and to support legislation “to protect unborn children who are capable of feeling pain from abortion.”

This article appears in the July 14, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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