The resurgence of social and cultural issues in voters' minds poses new challenges for GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney as he reels from surprising losses Tuesday to conservative favorite Rick Santorum.
The economy remains the No. 1 issue of concern for a majority of Americans. But the recent hoopla surrounding the Obama administration's support of contraceptives, the court ruling against California's same-sex marriage ban and heated debate about abortion access has created a perfect storm that has pushed these seemingly dormant issues to the surface.
"They've never been far from the surface. A lot of people thought the social issues had disappeared but that has never been the case," said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who focuses on polling data and public opinion. "These issues are obviously very important within a conservative party, the Republican party."
Now, Romney's record indicates a conservative bend on these issues: while he has enacted legislation in Massachussetts requiring hospitals, even religious ones, to perform abortions in the case of rape victims (not an unreasonable position, but more on that in another piece,) he has vetoed bills authorizing the morning-after pill (called the "abortion pill" by the living-room gibbons on the right,) which the legislature passed over his veto.
Yet, Romney gets the blame.
Meanwhile, Santorum has publicly been outspoken on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion (and likely, the hoopla over contraception for lay employees of the Catholic Church.)
In other words, this is a battle of right v. righty-right.
So where's the dogwhistle?
I mean, you have two candidates who have publicly worn their religion on their sleeves, one a church elder in fact. You'd think the choice would be harder.
Except....wellllllll....see, one's a Mormon. And there's where I think Santorum is striking gold, particularly in states that were part of the westward expansion of the nation.
The history of Mormonism in America is a harsh one: kicked out of New York, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and nearly every other state Mormons tried to settle in, they headed west. In fact, Mormons would end up being a major component and impetus to expand American hegemony to the west coast.
It probably didn't help that Joseph Smith was a crackpot who conned people left and right. He was a product of New York's Chautauqua "Burned-over District", which also produced the first of the apocalyptic preachers, William Miller, as well as the Fox sisters of Hydesville, who used to hold seances complete with table-rappings that were later admitted to be hoaxes.
The Mormons settled in an area they called Deseret, which actually encompassed most of the plains east of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico. The Federal government looked askance at this idea when the Mormons applied for statehood, and gave them Utah as a playground.