Contraception issue fought to a draw

at 03:28 PM ET, 02/14/2012

The Obama administration’s decision on Catholic institutions and contraception may have rekindled the social issue debate in American politics — particularly in the GOP primary.

But polling suggests the two sides have essentially fought to a draw.

While polling released before the issue became so hot-button showed a majority of Americans supported requiring all employers to require contraception coverage, a new poll from the Pew Research Center suggests that Americans are much more evenly split when it comes to religious institutions.

Furthermore, new Gallup poll previewed by The Post’s Greg Sargent shows President Obama’s numbers among Catholics remain basically unchanged.

The new Pew poll shows 48 percent of Americans say religious institutions should be exempted from providing birth control to their employees, while 44 percent say those institutions should be required to provide contraception coverage.

Previously, a Public Religion Research Institute poll from January showed 55 percent favored forcing all employers to cover contraception, with 40 percent opposed, and a Fox News poll last week showed 61 percent favored the Obama administration’s initial contraception coverage policy (was was amended slightly on Friday).

So the Pew poll suggests some movement toward the conservative view, right?

Not exactly.

The difference between these three polls is that, while the Pew poll placed the question in the context of religiously affiliated groups, the PRRI and Fox polls did not. Once that element is introduced into the equation, the calculus becomes a little more difficult than simply saying the all employers should cover birth control.

(Update: the PRRI poll did also test the issue in the context of religious institutions and got slightly different numbers than its initial 55/40 split. The numbers when religion was broached changed to 49 percent in favor of requiring the coverage and 46 percent against.)

And really, religion is the crux of the issue right now, so those numbers probably reflect the current debate a little more accurately. (Pew also excluded people who hadn’t heard about the controversy, which might also have moved the needle toward favoring an exemption.)

At the same time, we haven’t seen any reason to believe that this issue has actually moved any numbers.

Even among Catholics — the one group that we might think would bristle at Obama’s proposed requirement — there isn’t any less support for Obama now than there was before the controversy. Sargent notes that Obama’s approval rating hasn’t even changed among church-going Catholics.

As with so many social issues — including abortion and gay marriage — this issue appears to have turned out to be, in large part, a wash. It may have mobilized a few social conservatives and social liberals and made the GOP presidential race a little more focused on social issues, but right now there’s no reason to believe it will have any lasting implications in the general election later this year.

 
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