WASHINGTON -- The 2012 election was not supposed to play out like this.
The Tea Party, with its obsessive focus on the debt, was ascending. Mitt Romney, the consummate boardroom Republican, was the party's nominee. His vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), was known as a budget wonk. Virtually every public opinion poll showed the issue most important to voters was jobs. The campaign was supposed to be a referendum on President Barack Obama's stewardship of the economy.
Instead, the past few weeks have been dominated by continuous eruptions of debate over social policy: from the anti-gay politics of the president of a fast food chicken chain, to the racial implications of advertisements about welfare reform, to whether or not contraception should be covered by insurance. The trend peaked Sunday when Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) declared that women who suffer "legitimate rape" have the biological means to prevent themselves from getting pregnant -- a statement almost universally ridiculed, but trumpeted, in some quarters, as proof that the culture wars are far from settled.
Conservative activist Ralph Reed, who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said it was not surprising to see social issues at the forefront of the campaign.
"Here is the irony," Reed said. "We have an election we were told is going to be about the economy and jobs. And I would certainly agree that for the overwhelming majority of voters, including voters of faith, that it is the salient issue of this election. But having said that, look at what we have dealt with so far this year and we are only into August: contraception, Obama's evolution/flip flop on marriage, the Chick-fil-A episode, and Akin.
"These issues never go away," he added. "They are evergreen and they don’t go away because of the size and vibrancy of the community that cares about them, on both sides of the ball."
Indeed, an election that was supposed to be tied to the monthly job numbers has, for the time being, become a litmus test on social issues. It's caused more than a few bouts of heartache for the Republican establishment, with virtually every lawmaker running to denounce Akin's comments, and Ryan being forced to soften his rhetoric on abortion. But it's also energized core constituencies on both sides of the aisle who are accustomed to waging these fights on a biennial basis.
The debate over the Republican Party platform in Tampa, Fla. this past week underscored the extent to which social conservatives aren't willing to quiet their bark. From abortion to marriage to guns to Sharia law, they generated enough support to get nearly everything they wanted into the GOP platform, which still needs to voted on by the full delegation Monday during the Republican National Convention.
On the issue of gay rights, the party's platform once again endorses a constitutional ban on marriage equality and endorses the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
The platform endorses a constitutional ban on abortion, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother, saying, "the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed." The language is similar to what was included in the 2004 and 2008 platforms.
Social conservatives even convinced the platform committee to insert language encouraging the city council of Washington, D.C. to expand gun rights.
"It's a good platform," said Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council, a group that lobbies for social conservative causes, "a really strong platform."
Whether it's a politically inconvenient platform is another question entirely. Before it had even passed, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was noting that the Romney campaign didn't agree with all the accompanying language. Privately, top Republican operatives concede that the platform did little to help the campaign with its central message. Publicly, the more socially progressive members of the party predicted it would damage the ticket.
"Electing Mitt Romney isn't their number one priority this year ... because this election is going to be about jobs and economy and we should all be talking about jobs and economy," said Jimmy LaSalvia, co-founder and the executive director of GOProud, a conservative group promoting gay rights. "They are not helping the effort here to elect Mitt Romney because the vast majority of voters aren't focused on those issues. Why do they want to hear a bunch of people talking about abortion when they are worried about putting gas in their car? It gives the impression that Republicans don’t care about issues that affect average Americans."
As LaSalvia sees it, the platform has little actual influence on the legislative priorities that parties pursue once in power. To waste time and energy shaping it and fretting about it, then, is inherently pointless.
But it's hard to deny that social conservatives were able to use the platform-crafting process to reorient the political debate. And in an election season where each news cycle matters, its impact went beyond enshrining certain language into a largely ceremonial document.
FRC was instrumental in getting many of the provisions on guns, abortion and same-sex marriage included. Its president, Tony Perkins, is a delegate from Louisiana this year and was on the platform committee, giving him an important perch from which to push causes important to social conservatives. The expansion of D.C. gun laws came directly from Perkins, who McClusky said has a personal interest in the issue.
Perkins and FRC also worked with the conservative Center for Military Readiness to insert language into the platform stating that military chaplains would not have to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies, and the group contributed to provisions relating to abortion and stem cell research.
"We found the majority of the language throughout the legislation was excellent," said McClusky. "But Tony rewrote the marriage plank to make it a little more stronger and clearer. That passed overwhelmingly in committee."
Some of the top priorities for the fiscal conservatives in the caucus were addressed as well, but to much smaller fanfare. On MSNBC on Thursday, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) insisted that only 10 percent of the platform was devoted to the so-called "traditional" social issues. Language was inserted in the platform expressing support for auditing the Federal Reserve, as well as endorsing a "flatter tax." But other issues, like eliminating specific departments of the federal government, were left unaddressed.
Beyond that, some socially moderate groups were distraught that the platform hadn't ended up presenting a new, more modern Republican Party. The Log Cabin Republicans, a pro-LGBT rights group, initially tried to spin the platform as positive for them, pointing out to BuzzFeed that the document contained the line, "We embrace the principle that all Americans have the right to be treated with dignity and respect."
But that hope was short-lived, and in the end, even they had to admit that the language included by the platform committee on marriage was "abysmal."
"Tony Perkins may be boasting today about having written an anti-gay marriage plank into the Republican Party platform, but it will be a hollow and short-lived victory," said Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director R. Clarke Cooper. "The obsessive exclusion of gay couples, including military families, from the rights and responsibilities of marriage, combined with bizarre rhetoric about 'hate campaigns' and 'the homosexual rights agenda' are clear signs of desperation among social conservatives who know that public opinion is rapidly turning in favor of equality."
In a follow-up interview with The Huffington Post, Cooper insisted there were nevertheless some bright spots this year. For example, the platform committee did not call for the reinstatement of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which barred openly gay men and women from serving in the military before being repealed in 2011.
Beyond searching for silver linings in the platform, other Republicans expressed confidence that this current bout of culture war nostalgia wouldn't trip up the presidential ticket. For starters, the upcoming convention would help reset the conversation. Beyond that, they said, the party was far more interested in moving on to other matters.
"If social conservatives were really flexing their muscles," said one Republican campaign official, "then our nominee wouldn't have been Mitt Romney."