The resurgence of social and cultural issues in voters' minds poses new challenges for GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney as he reels from surprising losses Tuesday to conservative favorite Rick Santorum.
The economy remains the No. 1 issue of concern for a majority of Americans. But the recent hoopla surrounding the Obama administration's support of contraceptives, the court ruling against California's same-sex marriage ban and heated debate about abortion access has created a perfect storm that has pushed these seemingly dormant issues to the surface.
"They've never been far from the surface. A lot of people thought the social issues had disappeared but that has never been the case," said Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who focuses on polling data and public opinion. "These issues are obviously very important within a conservative party, the Republican party."
Even the general public has increasingly leaned to the right. In a Gallup poll last month, 40 percent of Americans identified themselves as conservative, 35 percent as moderate and 21 percent as liberal. The numbers marked the third straight year that conservatives outnumbered moderates, which have declined steadily since the early 1990s.
An overwhelming number of Republicans – 51 percent – dubbed themselves as "conservatives" while 20 percent classified themselves as "very conservative," far outweighing moderates. The poll also found that independents, who make up the largest political group in the country, were mostly conservative-leaning, with 41 percent putting themselves in that category.
"In recent years, conservatives have become the single largest group, consistently outnumbering moderates since 2009 and outnumbering liberals by 2 to 1. Overall, the nation has grown more ideologically polarized over the past decade," the analysis stated. "The increase in the proportion of conservatives is entirely the result of increased conservatism among Republicans and independents, and is also seen in Americans 30 and older -- particularly seniors."
Santorum, with his staunch anti-abortion stance and Christian ideology, has strong backing among conservatives who still view Romney and his record with skepticism. Newt Gingrich was able to attract some of that conservative support in South Carolina but his personal record, including two failed marriages and an affair with his current wife while he was still married, has come under much public scrutiny.
Santorum "has been a consistent conservative in the debates. He's raised a lot of social issues that haven't been the focus of Romney and Gingrich in the debates," Bowman said.
The former senator from Pennsylvania supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, as well as banning abortion even in the case of rape and not allowing homosexual couples to adopt children.
Romney, meanwhile, has struggled to convince the Republican base of his conservative credentials. Most recently, he came under fire for allowing "abortion pills" as governor of Massachusetts. In 2005, Romney vetoed a law that required all Massachusetts hospitals, including those owned by religious groups, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims, but it was overridden by the state legislature.
But Romney later said that "in my heart of hearts, is that people who are subject to rape should have the option of having emergency contraception or emergency contraception information."
That same year, Romney vetoed a law allowing the disbursement of the controversial morning-after pill by pharmacists without a doctor's prescription, but the state Senate overrode his veto.
Romney's business record has worked in his favor, with exit polls in early states showing that most primary voters viewed it with a favorable eye. But his changing views on highly volatile social issues, including abortion, have yet to win him favor among conservatives. Such hesitancy was in full display Tuesday in Minnesota, where Romney did not carry a single county even though its former governor, Tim Pawlenty, campaigned for him.
"Romney has to go back to mollifying that base, which is not something he wanted to do," political analyst Norm Ornstein said. "What it means for Romney is that he's going to have to make more and more sharply conservative pledges and try to trigger even more of that conservative antipathy [against President Obama]."
But that could be a challenging task for the former governor who faces a more difficult road to the nomination than many expected. "The more he does this, he looks phony," Ornstein said.
The focus on social issues among the U.S. electorate doesn't bode well for Obama either. He has taken much heat for his administration's decision to require religious schools, universities, charities and hospitals to provide contraceptive services in their insurance plans.
House Speaker John Boehner today became the latest Republican to jump into the showdown, saying that if the administration doesn't reverse the policy, Congress will.
"In imposing this requirement, the federal government is violating a First Amendment right that has stood for more than two centuries, and it is doing so in a manner that affects millions of Americans and harms some of our nation's most vital institutions," Boehner, R-Ohio, said on the House floor. "If the president does not reverse the department's attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution we are sworn to uphold and defend, must."
The House, comprised of a number of freshman lawmakers who won based on their firm opposition to abortion, has already introduced a number of bills tightening abortion restrictions and defunding Planned Parenthood.
Still, if the Republican race goes into the summer, as many now expect, even the focus on social issues would bode well for the president, experts say.
"Certainly one of the things that's happening now is people are feeling less frantic about the economy and so other issues do emerge more," Ornstein said. "Are they going to supersede the economy? If they do, that's great news for Barack Obama, even if he suffers some with the decision on contraception, because it's a signal that the economy is receding as an issue and if the economy is receding as an issue that means things are going well."