By Eric Best
Despite recent primaries in Michigan and Ohio -- states hit hardest by some of the worst economic numbers since the Great Depression -- the 2012 presidential election has seen more talk about contraception, abortion and marriage laws than the housing market or tax bills in past weeks.
Social issues don't typically dominate the discussion in gloomy economies. In 2008, candidates pushed social topics to the back burner in place of economic factors that went on to decide the election. So why are they in this election?
Social issues are strong tools for polarizing voters, as they raise emotional reaction, which becomes important for early voter turnout in primaries and caucuses. For candidates like Rick Santorum, a relatively unknown candidate just a few months ago, providing more focus on social issues is a strategy to get more media attention and campaign funds.
The economy and jobs still tops lists as the number one topic voters want to hear about, and will most likely decide the election after parties have chosen their candidates. Yet, for now, candidates are pointing fingers at Washington for its birth control policy. Santorum has championed a newly passed bill that requires women to undergo a pelvic ultrasound before they can have an abortion.
Shifting the debate to these topics may change who can win primaries, as opposed to who can win elections. Candidates like Santorum and Jon Huntsman benefited from early debates but have been criticized about their economic credentials.
The candidates' inclination toward social topics seems to correlate with the monthly report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which claimed that more than 200,000 jobs have been created each of the past three months. NASDAQ and Dow Jones both hit their highest numbers since the beginning of the financial crisis in January. This seems to have scared Republican candidates away from taking on economic issues.
According to Nate Silver of the New York Times, the electability of each candidate is affected by changing what is discussed. GOP frontrunners Mitt Romney and Santorum are rated as equally conservative on economic issues, yet Santorum seems strikingly more conservative on social policy.
Santorum has become synonymous with social issues, campaigning hard on his religious values, perhaps as a way to distinguish himself from other GOP candidates. The opposite is true of Romney, whose big business background has been under recent scrutiny from the right and left. Such polarization motivates voters early, but hurts a candidate's chances of being elected later in an election. When voters see a candidate with more radical positions on social issues, it can be repelling, especially to undecided and swing voters who can decide elections.
The shift toward social issues has President Barack Obama at a disadvantage. The president has less control over social issues, which are largely decided on the state and court level, rather than by the executive branch. Thus, it may be easier for candidates to simply blame Obama over what they see as current social problems.
Ultimately, economic policy will decide the race for the White House. As the election winds down, voters are going to want to put faith in a candidate who they know can handle the economy and not necessarily social concerns.
As the economy moves to the limelight of the presidential race, more Americans will join the political discussion. While social issues are of great importance, both the candidates and news media must talk about what voters need and want to know about so they can make an informed decision.