Social Conservatism Could Be Dead in the GOP


The recent attempt within elements of the Republican party to downplay social conservatism in favor of a greater focus on economic principles has drawn fire from many in the Christian conservative wing. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in particular have recently voiced their disdain at the attempt to seemingly marginalise these ideas in favor of more popular discussion pieces. However, they would be incorrect in thinking that focus on social issues is the route back to prosperity for the GOP.

Santorum and Huckabee are responding to, among other things, the internal reports of the party on how to best rejuvenate their chances of a successful presidential run in 2016. In their attempt to take a share of the new, younger section of the electorate, a Republican National Committee panel stated that "certain social issues" are "turning off young voters from the party." The report also warned that the party should also avoid giving the impression that it is "totally intolerant of alternative points of view," lest it dissuade this growing electoral block.

The most recent backlash to this has occurred as a result of the same-sex marriage issue. Prominent social conservatives have made a point of highlighting the flaws of their diminishing influence. Mike Huckabee has suggested that social conservative turnout affected Republican chances in the last election saying that "If all of the evangelicals had showed up, it may have made a difference." This was a sentiment echoed by Rick Santorum, who lamented the lack of candidates "who weren't ashamed of the positions they had on these issues" in the past two elections. Santorum also appeared to be critical of the economic wing of the party with his steadfast assertion that the party was not about to change its stance on social issues, stating that "We’re not the Libertarian Party, we’re the Republican Party."

In terms of previous elections, the figures do not appear to support the assertions of the two former candidates. Polling data released by Pew after the 2012 election found that Mitt Romney gained the same amount of evangelical support compared to George W. Bush in 2004 (79%), an increase on John McCain’s still-dominant 73% in 2008. This factors in the fact that evangelical voters made up 26% of the electorate in 2012, compared to 23% in 2004. These figures would seem to counteract the claim that lack of evangelical turnout was the cause of an election loss for the party. It also suggests that a nominee who is "ashamed" of social conservative principles is still considered a more viable choice than allowing a Democrat to occupy the White House.

While social conservatives may be disappointed with the move away from their platform at present, there does not appear to be much to gain from highlighting it on the national stage.

Partly, this is due to the "decoupling" of abortion and same-sex marriage as separate issues, rather than falling under the "values" umbrella. Polling among millennials in particular is divided, with 78% supporting same-sex marriage, yet only 50% considering abortion to be morally wrong according to some poll sources. The values debate is one that would be fraught with pitfalls at present, with the public seemingly unwilling to take a definitive stance on the social conservative platform in its entirety.

Rhetorically, at least, there appear to be a shift among potential national candidates away from the conversation on values. With not much headway to be made by highlighting these issues, and no recognisable drop-off in support among evangelical voters, it would not make sense for the party to place this at centre stage for the foreseeable future.