Can Obama win the election on social issues?

Team Obama may have given up hope for economic change in this election cycle, according to Politico.  With the economy sinking further into stagnation, if not into a new recession, Democrats have begun to push social issues as the front for Barack Obama’s re-election, and think they have an edge that will lead them to victory:

Americans trust President Barack Obama over presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney on social issues, 52 percent to 36 percent, according to a new AP-GfK poll released Friday. …

Democrats are counting on the president’s edge on social issues to make up for a weak economy. The Obama campaign has emphasized Romney’s opposition to abortion rights as part of a broader campaign to woo female voters.

If they’re relying on the AP poll, they’re going to be very disappointed in the results.  The sample D/R/I without leaners is 29/22/33, with Republicans absurdly underrepresented (the 2010 split was 35/35/30).  With leaners, the split is 49/39/12.  Even the 2008 race, with its Democratic wave, didn’t produce a D+10 turnout.  And even with that kind of advantage, the main social issue on which Obama has explicitly campaigned — gay marriage — actually trails its opposition.

That would be bad news even if voters were focused on social issues in this election.  A new Pew poll this week, though, shows that the two social issues on which Obama rests these hopes are the two lowest priorities for voters in this election:

Economic conditions are at the forefront of most voters’ concerns. When asked to name the issue they would most like to hear the candidates talk about, 56% mention one of three economic topics: the economy broadly (42%), the job situation (13%) or the budget deficit (4%). Health care is the only other issue garnering more than one-in-ten mentions (18%).

A separate close-ended question echoes these economic concerns. When offered six choices, a plurality of voters (35%) say that jobs will be the top issue in deciding their vote for president this year, followed by the budget deficit (23%) and health care (19%). Another 11% say Social Security will matter most to them, with relatively few citing immigration (5%) or gay marriage (4%) as the most important issue affecting their vote.

Jobs top the list for both certain Obama supporters (37%) and swing voters (38%), while certain Romney supporters are about equally likely to say jobs (30%) as to say the budget deficit (33%). Health care is more frequently named by certain Obama voters (26%) than either certain Romney (14%) or swing voters (15%).

Another interesting takeaway from Pew: independents favor Romney by five, 49/44.  It shows Obama up overall, but as The Hill notes, Romney’s catching up by focusing on what voters find important:

New polls released this week reveal President Obama holds a very tight lead over Mitt Romney, but that the GOP nominee is closing the gap by focusing on economic issues.

According to a Pew Research poll released Thursday, 50 percent of registered voters support or lean toward supporting Obama, while 46 percent support or lean toward Romney. That’s a very narrow lead for Obama, with a margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the poll.

Some believe that Team Obama thinks it can run the 2004 George W. Bush playbook and win a base-turnout election by firing people up over social issues.  That ignores two key differences in the two elections.  First, liberals cannot win base-turnout presidential elections; their numbers are too low.  They need to win independents, which means that the base-turnout strategy is likely to backfire.  Second and more importantly, Bush could run that kind of campaign in 2004 because the economy was rapidly growing, and unemployment was at 6% and falling (with civilian participation rates stable).  Pocketbook issues were nowhere near as urgent as they are in 2012.    Trying to run the Bush 2004 playbook and focus on social issues in this economic environment will play right into Team Romney’s strategy of painting Obama as out of touch and out of ideas.

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