Seeds of Social Issues Dot 2008 Elections
By Louis Jacobson, Special to Stateline
With a sagging economy and a divisive war occupying Americans' minds, will social issues be overshadowed in campaign 2008? Quite possibly - but it would be foolhardy to write them off.
National polls - and more than 50 state and national experts contacted for this column - broadly agree that Americans' deepening concerns about the economy are currently overshadowing the kinds of polarizing social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, that have helped shape recent federal and state races. This year, social issues do not yet seem to be motivating voters as strongly as they did in 2004, the last presidential election year, when exit polls showed that many voters placed a heavy emphasis on moral values.
This year, political observers and practitioners in Missouri, North Carolina and Indiana tell "Out There" that social issues currently rank far behind the economy in those states' highly competitive gubernatorial contests. Similar reports are coming in from states as diverse as New Hampshire, Wisconsin and North Dakota, all of which have legislative chambers in play this fall.
But the issue landscape can change suddenly. And Republicans, running in a year when Democrats hold key advantages, may be driven to emphasize social issues to motivate their party's base. "If the economic issue is not going the GOP's way, why not move to something where they're on better ground?" said Alex Johnson, a former executive director of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee.
Indeed, a number of social issues already have surfaced in the states, both in legislatures and in signature drives to place initiatives on the 2008 ballot. Not all of these will ultimately make the ballot or become campaign issues this fall, and if they do, their election impact will vary.
But an early look flags states where social issues could emerge this fall - with possible ripple effects in everything from the presidential race to legislative contests.
Consider abortion. For the second time in two years, South Dakotans are expected to vote on an anti-abortion ban, this one with exceptions for rape, incest or endangerment of a woman's life or health. In 2006, Gov. Mike Rounds (R) signed a strict law banning abortions except when the life of the mother was in jeopardy. It provoked a successful recall effort that re-energized Democrats and moderate Republicans in this strongly red state, possibly putting the state Senate within reach for the Democrats this year.
"I get the feeling most normal people on both sides of the issue are tired of the abortion debate, but for some voters, it can be a deciding issue, or even the only issue, in legislative races," said Todd Epp, a state Democratic committeeman in South Dakota.
In Missouri - a presidential battleground state with several competitive statewide elections this fall, including an open gubernatorial contest - a proposed initiative would require a psychological exam for women seeking abortions.
Meanwhile, activists in California are trying to place a parental-notification measure on the ballot, while voters in Colorado and Montana may face potentially far-reaching initiatives that would grant embryos "personhood" - a tactic to chip away at Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. In both Colorado and Montana, legislative majorities are at risk, and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) is running for re-election.
In Alaska - where a corruption scandal has left the state's GOP legislative majorities teetering - a backlash is rising against a state Supreme Court ruling that parents do not need to be notified if their underage daughter wants an abortion.
Gay marriage still in play this year, even if the issue is not as dominant as in November 2004, when voters in 11 states approved bans.
Florida voters will weigh a measure to ban same-sex marriage as well as civil unions and domestic partnerships. Arizona legislators are considering putting a gay marriage ban on the ballot this fall, two years after voters narrowly rejected another, somewhat wider restriction. California activists also are trying to place a gay marriage ban on the ballot, an effort that has drawn the opposition of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). Illinois voters may consider a non-binding gay marriage ban.
Meanwhile, opponents of two measures passed by the Oregon Legislature - a law giving state marital benefits to same-sex partners and a non-discrimination law covering sexual orientation - want to overturn both by popular vote. And in Iowa, House Democrats, who hold a narrow majority, are taking heat from conservatives for refusing to debate a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Both of these states are also presidential battlegrounds.
In Arkansas, voters are likely to vote on whether to prevent gay couples, and probably non-married straight couples, from adopting or taking in foster children.
The most tightly organized social-issue campaign is arguably the initiative effort led by anti-affirmative action crusader Ward Connerly. Inspired by a ballot-measure victory in Michigan in 2004 and backed by a reported $1.5 million, his group is looking to place initiatives to end racial and gender preferences in government contracting and university admissions on the ballot in Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma - all of which have at least one at-risk legislative chamber this fall - as well as in Missouri and Nebraska.
Conservative activist Grover Norquist suggested that gun control could become a big issue because of a closely watched Supreme Court case. And if immigration is classified as a social issue, it's a topic poised to pop up all over, as legislators tout their own efforts to toughen enforcement on illegal immigrants. Given the nation's economic worries, "immigrants taking American jobs is a good frame," said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University political scientist, citing Virginia Republicans' efforts to highlight immigration in 2007 legislative elections.
If the economy continues to dominate voters' attention, it could give a boost to state-level Democrats, especially in conservative and swing states, where the national party's liberal lean can be a drag on candidates whose economic message might otherwise be attractive. Republicans - who seem to have a larger base of social-issues-focused voters - could benefit despite the downbeat economy if social issues surge higher on the agenda.
If socially conservative voters "are forced to choose between economic issues and values issues, they will vote their values," said Richard Land, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Land said he regularly gets sustained ovations when he tells audiences that he doesn't want to "explain to God someday why I voted for my pocketbook over my values."
Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow , an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Call, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report.