The Spectacle Blog

The Contraception Election

By on 2.15.12 | 2:53PM

Let's take something I've been debating in the comments and hash it out here on the main blog: If Rick Santorum won the nomination, could he keep the Democrats from turning the election into a referendum on contraception?

The case that he couldn't: Santorum holds a fairly unpopular view on the use of contraception. He holds it sincerely and has been willing to talk about it when asked. He also rejects the Griswold decision and holds a fairly expansive view of state police powers. The media is going to harp on these things endlessly even if Santorum can somehow be persuaded to stop talking about condoms and pills himself. And many people will conclude he favors a birth control ban as a matter of policy, even if the actual evidence they cite stops short of establishing this as a fact.

The case that he could: Most, if not all, the Santorum contraception quotes making the rounds predate his recent surge. They were from interviews before he was a major candidate for the nomination or before he was a presidential candidate at all. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Santorum seems to have avoided making the dangers of the pill a major feature of his standard stump speech.

Consider the politics of the HHS contraception mandate. While the poll results vary depending on how the question is asked, a large percentage of the public sympathizes with Catholic institutions' unwillingness to subsidize contraception over their moral objections (almost certainly a higher percentage of the public than sympathizes with those moral objections). Secular conservatives and libertarians have opposed the mandate. Democrats have divided over the issue and the Obama administration has floated a compromise, while Republicans are mostly united.

That suggests that Democrats don't see the mandate, at least, as an unambiguous political winner for them. It also suggests that sustained attacks on Santorum's religious beliefs -- especially if he doesn't make personal contraceptive use a major focus of his campaign -- could backfire with voters Obama needs. Of course, there is no guarantee that Santorum wouldn't be the one who overreaches on this issue.

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