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Why White House sees political opportunity in the contraception battle

at 09:30 AM ET, 02/08/2012


(Public Religion Research Institute)
The controversy over the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation’s decision to eliminate funding to Planned Parenthood—and subsequent reversal— continues. Catholic leaders are blasting the health reform requirement that insurance plans to cover contraceptives. Commentator Mark Shields joined other liberals in blasting the provision, saying it could have “cataclysmic” fallout for President Obama come November.

Numerous pundits have predicted that the requirement —and its narrow exemption for churches — will be a political liability for Obama. But where Shields sees “cataclysmic” fallout, the White House sees something quite different: a chance to widen the reproductive health debate beyond abortion to issues like contraceptives, winning over key demographics of independent voters in the process.

And that could explain why the White House, alongside the Obama campaign, has engaged eagerly on the issues. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was in USA Today earlier this week, praising the new provision. The Obama campaign meanwhile hasn’t been shy either, drawing up an infographic praising the new regulation. While there are some signs of a potential compromise for religious groups, the White House has made it pretty clear it plans to stand firm behind the current regulation.

But while Catholic leadership has blasted the new regulation, polls show that a majority of Catholics are actually more supportive of the provision than the rest of the country. A poll out Tuesday from the Public Religion Research Institute finds 52 percent of Catholic voters agreed with the statement, “employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost.” That’s pretty much in line with overall support for the provision, which hovers at 55 percent - likely because Catholics use contraceptives at rates similar to the rest of Americans.

A majority of Catholics - 52 percent - also agree with the Obama administration’s decision to not exempt religious hospitals and universities from the provision. “Outside the political punditry, most Catholics agree with the administration on the issue,” says one Obama campaign official, explaining the view that this could be a political win.

And a lot of this likely isn’t about Catholic voters at all.

Rather, it may well be about the demographics that are most supportive of this particular health reform provision: young voters and women. In the PRRI poll, both groups register support above 60 percent for the provision.

Those two demographics are important here for a key reason: they were crucial to Obama’s victory in 2008. Third Way crunched the numbers earlier this month and found that the “Obama Independents” — the swing group that proved crucial to his 2008 victory — are, as Ryan Lizza put it, “disproportionately young, female and secular.”

“In 2012, Independents are likely to comprise the highest proportion of the electorate since 1976, and winning them will be crucial to victory,” write Third Way’s Michelle Diggles and Lanae Erickson. “If President Obama woos the vast majority [of his independent voters] back, he can be reelected.”

These voters have tended to be difficult for abortion rights supporters to engage on reproductive health issues like abortion. Research from NARAL Pro-Choice America, which I wrote about last weekend, found a significant “intensity gap” there, with abortion rights supporters much less likely to see it as a crucial voting issue than their anti-abortion counterparts.

But when the conversation moves away from abortion to contraceptives - as it has this week - the intensity gap flips: A much larger segment of voters are willing to penalize a legislator who votes to defund family planning. That became apparent in polling that Democratic firm Lake Research Partners did earlier this year, which found that 40 percent of voters would be less likely to support a member of Congress who votes to defund family-planning programs. Just 22 percent would be more likely to support such a lawmaker.

That particular poll isn’t a perfect analogy for the current debate about the contraception mandate. But it speaks to something I’ve heard a lot in recent interviews with abortion right supporters: When the reproductive health debate moves away from abortion, it becomes easier to message and connect with voters. Unlike abortion rights, an issue that tends to split voters, most polls on contraceptives and birth control tend to find Americans solidly in support. That Lake Research poll I mentioned earlier found that 84 percent of Americans view family planning, including contraceptives, as basic health care.

Young voters and women were key demographics for Obama in 2008. By hitting hard on a policy they strongly support, and moving the conversation away from abortion politics, the campaign may have found a new way to reach them.

 
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