You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Is Birth Control Coverage Bad Politics for Obama?

Many pundits seem convinced the Obama Administration’s decision on contraception coverage is bad politics for the president. And although I support the decision to make coverage mandatory, even for large religious institutions, that conclusion about the politics is likely true in at least one sense.

Up until about a week ago, Obama was cruising politically. Unemployment was falling, the Republicans were self-destructing, and the president’s poll numbers were climbing. The improvement was modest, for sure, but the trend seemed to be steady and in the right direction. Changing the subject was unlikely to help. And yet the subject has been changed, at least among the chattering class.

Where I part with the other pundits is over the long-term effects of this controversy. They seem very sure of it. I am not. And since Nate Silver hasn't opined on how this might play out, let me attempt to do my best, admittedly imperfect, impersonation.

As you probably know, the big danger for Obama is that this decision alienates Catholic voters. The idea is that these voters, who might otherwise see Obama as a defender of their economic interests, will turn against him: Even if they use contraception personally (as most do) and disagree with the Church’s teaching, they’ll interpret this decision as broadly hostile to religion and, perhaps, specifically hostile to Catholics. 

Whether Catholics will actually react in this way is the big question. And polls can't answer it that well, because even the most careful surveys I've seen don't differentiate clearly between people that might otherwise vote for Obama—by, for example, differentiating between Catholics who attend church and those who don't, or between those with a college education and those without. 

Still, a widely cited poll from the Public Religion Research Institute offers some clues. Overall, slightly more than half of Catholic respondents to the survey said they supported requiring religious colleges and hospitals to provide contraception coverage, with zero cost. But Catholic voters opposed the idea, 52 percent to 48 percent, and white Catholic voters opposed the idea by 58 to 41 percent. (Why do we care about white Catholics? Because, presumably, non-white Catholics are strong Obama supporters.)  

A second, more subtle danger of politicizing this issue is that it fires up the Republican base. I know what you're thinking: Isn’t the Republican base already pretty fired up about getting Obama out of office? Sure. But Mitt Romney remains the likely nominee and Republican voters don't seemed too fired up about him. Maybe, just maybe this episode helps convince them that Romney, who has attacked Obama stridently for the contraception rule, is their mana after all. And while the difference might seem incremental, every little bit matters in a close election.

But intensity of feeling seems strong on both sides of this issue. And while the pundits spend all of their time talking about Catholic voters, there's another key demographic whose allegiance in the election is apparently up for grabs: Women who identify themselves as politically independent. I haven't seen a poll breaking out their opinions on the issue, but women overall support this decision by healthy margins. 

And in that sense they mirror the population as a whole, at least according to three of the four polls I've seen on the issue. In the PRRI poll, a majority of respondents to the PRRI survey said they supported making contraception coverage mandatory (55 percent to 40 percent) and a small plurality (49 percent to 46 percent) said they supported applying the mandate even to religious colleges and universities. This is despite the opposition of Catholic voters and strong opposition of evangelicals.

The second poll comes from Lake Research. It's a private poll, conducted on behalf of the Herdon Alliance last year, that Greg Sargent and Sam Stein have obtained. The third is a new poll from Public Policy Polling, on behalf of Planned Parenthood. In both of those surveys, majorities supported making birth control coverage mandatory and applying that requirement to religious institutions. 

The outlier is the fourth poll, from Rasmussen. In its survey from last year, only 39 percent of likely voters said they supported applying the requirement to religious organizations and 50 percent said they did not. 

Why the divergence? A likely explanation is the wording: Each survey posed the question in a slightly different way. We can debate which pollster was pushing in one direction or the other, for whatever reason. But, as I see it, the surveys actually support to the same conclusion: How this issue plays out depends on which side frames this controversy to its advantage. In short, if this controversy lingers, does it do so as a debate about religious liberty or access to contraception?

Commentators and media coverage generally have focused on the former debate, in which the administration’s critics seem to have greater political support. But voters may not see it that way, particularly given aggressive moves by the Conference of Catholic Bishops and some conservative Republicans to eliminate the contraception requirement altogether. (See my colleague Alec MacGillis' item yesterday for more on that.) 

Again, I really don’t know how this will turn out. But I agree with Greg Sargent that “leading commentators have been far too quick to declare this a certain political loser.” 

follow me on twitter @CitizenCohn