Campaigning on Contraception: Obama's Calculus

(Credit: Evan Vucci/AP Photo)

While the Obama administration has bungled its case for a new contraception mandate and faces mounting pressure to backtrack, many Democrats believe the debate will yield a net positive for the president in his quest for a second term.

"There are people on both sides of the debate who are single issue voters, but most people aren't," said Anna Greenberg a Democratic strategist who specializes in polling on women, religion and politics.

By this line of reasoning, Catholics and other devout pro-life voters angered by the mandate already don't support President Obama and Democrats, and if they do, the new controversy won't be enough alone to turn them away.

"It's not like this is an issue that will drive the election," said Greenberg. "On the other hand it sends a very strong signal about the values of the candidates. And don't underestimate how these issues give information to voters beyond the issue itself."

Droves of Democrats paraded before cameras, held conference calls, and sent email blasts Wednesday to rally around Obama and cast Republican opposition to his decision as part of a pattern of "extremes" - from a campaign to defund Planned Parenthood to support for personhood amendments in Colorado and Mississippi.

"Some have decided again to use women's health as a political football," said Re. Lois Capps, D-Calif., on a call with reporters. "The real truth is that this issue is not as divisive as some would make it out to be."

Meanwhile, Obama's re-election campaign has mounted an aggressive social media blitz to bolster support from women,  elevating the contraception decision on their list of pro-women talking points.

A new website offers Obama supporters an automated tool to send letters to the editor to one of 17 major U.S. newspapers. The campaign has also been blasting an infographic out on Twitter, Facebook, and email and posting dozens of comments from women supporters on the campaign's blog.  

"This determination to restrict birth control has really surprised people," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. "Ninety-eight percent of sexually active women in this country - including Catholic women - use birth control." 

"Women know it's really important to re-election President Obama," she added of the political implications of the contraception mandate debate. "The alternative on the right - Mitt Romney - he was pro-choice as governor, now he's in favor of personhood amendment. That's a huge, huge change."

Marcia Greenberger, co-president National Women's Law Center, said regardless of the religious and constitutional concerns - or a potential reversal or compromise by the administration - the debate elevates what's at risk for women in 2012.

"The threats are so concrete and so visible for women," said Greenberger. "They had been much more behind the scenes and much more technical and much less transparent than they are now.

"Some of these questions have a dollar and sense component to them. Women want to use contraception are often faced with terrible dilemmas because they can't afford to use contraception and to meet co-pays and deductibles even if they're fortunate enough to have insurance," she said.

Republicans insist, however, that Democrats' political calculus surrounding the decision to refuse exemptions for religiously-affiliated groups from the contraception mandate is flatly wrong.

"This issue, while important to Catholics, is rallying people of all faiths because of its implications on the First Amendment. Americans fundamentally believe in freedom of religion and this is a clear overreach by President Obama and the White House," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.

"This is not a woman issue or a Catholic issue, this is about the federal government overstepping its bounds," she said. "The reality is Democrats are starting to break from the president because he overstepped on a fundamental right we all believe in whether we are women, men, Republican or Democrat."

At least five Democratic senators and the former head of the Democratic Party turned U.S. senate candidate, Tim Kaine, have broken with President Obama and called for a compromise with religiously-affiliated employers. And several groups have filed a legal challenge of the mandate in federal court.

Republicans say the optics of Obama overreaching and over-regulating by the contraception decision  will be an prevailing factor in November with independents and swing voters, who polls show are already wary of government intrusion in business and faith.

The Catholic vote - which makes up 30 percent of the electorate and have played swing role since the 1980s - is notably in play, they say.

"This isn't even a social issue. This is a constitutional issue," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told a conservative conference in Washington Thursday. "I know what the U.S. Constitution says about it, and what it says is the federal government does not have the power to force religious organizations to pay for things that that organization thinks is wrong."

The electoral impact of Obama's decision on exemptions to the contraception mandate - and whether voters are swayed more by the social or constitutional arguments - may not be fully known until  voters head to the polls

But for now, Team Obama is counting on the move to bolster his already rising approval among women on his job performance and in a match-up with leading GOP rival, Mitt Romney.

Fifty-five percent of women say they prefer Obama over Romney in a match-up in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, conducted Feb. 1-4.  That's up seven points from a Dec. 19 ABC/Post poll, when women were split 48-40.

The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

"In 2010, by one point, women supported Republican candidates nationally. That's the first time that's happened in 30 years.  So that's a very big deal," said Greenberg.

"If you don't win women by about 55 percent of the vote then you lost national elections. So it's really important for Obama to be at 55 for women. He's going to lose the election if women are anywhere below 55 percent for him."