DES MOINES, IOWA—Leaders of Iowa's religious right gathered here Wednesday night in an attempt to recalibrate the presidential race to focus on the social issues. A full crowd packed into the ornate Hoyt Sherman Place theater for the world premiere for Gift of Life, a pro-life film produced by Citizens United and narrated by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. The film was full of CGIed fetuses, heart-rending stories of adults whose parents had considered abortion, and Huckabee strolling on a beach wearing a blazer as children built sandcastles in the background.
The crowd sat enraptured throughout the movie, but the four Republican candidates who spoke before the film were the real draw. Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum all happily stepped on stage to flaunt their pro-life credentials; Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Jon Huntsman turned down the invitation.
Each of the candidates in attendance used the opportunity to make outlandish claims and commitments on how they would roll back abortion rights if elected president. Bachmann, who spoke first, managed to criticize Barack Obama for one of the few policies where the two seem to have the same position: Plan B. The Obama administration recently overruled the FDA's recommendation to make the emergency contraceptive available over the counter. Like many liberals, Bachmann thought Obama's move was disingenuous, intended only to score political points among moderates for next year's election. "Even he knew this was one step too far," she said, "too far for now, before his re-election. If he is re-elected … we know within a nanosecond Plan B would be available on the grocery store aisles."
Newly minted Iowa front-runner Newt Gingrich promised a busy first day in office if he reached the White House. If elected, Gingrich said he would immediately sign two executive orders: one reinstituting Ronald Reagan's "Mexico City policy," which banned foreign aid directed at family planning, and one bringing back George W Bush's "conscience policy" that would allow medical practitioners to refuse to provide treatments and medications if doing so goes against their religious beliefs. Gingrich also said he would send a bill to Congress demanding that Planned Parenthood be defunded, a frequent line of attack against the nation's largest provider of reproductive services.
An all-star cast of Iowa's social conservative movement took to the stage before the presidential candidates, including popular drive-time talk host Jan Mickelson, Iowa Right to Life's Executive Director Jenifer Bowen, and Tea Party kingpin Bob Vander Plaats. They seemed bereaved that social issues have not taken a more prominent place in the national debate and insisted that they were still the most important issues for the people of Iowa. "People are starting to link that the economy and the family are joined," Vander Plaats told me after the event. "If you want to have limited government, you better have strong families. If you want to have a vibrant economy, you better have strong families."
But that's not what I heard as I filtered through the theater. While everyone I spoke with considered himself or herself pro-life and many said they could never vote for a pro-choice candidate, they understood why social issues haven't received the same prominence in this year's nomination contest. "Obviously, people's pocketbooks are going to drive a lot of elections, that's pretty typical," said Jeff Newell, a contractor and self-described independent from Des Moines who has not decided which candidate he will vote for in the caucus—except he's ruled out voting for Romney and Paul. "A lot of times in politics we hear a lot of things, but they don't mean a lot of things," he said. "Cynical, but it's true. Abortion has been a political football for 30 years now."
That view isn't confined to the theater last night. Polls consistently show that Iowans are less concerned with social issues than the economy. A CBS poll from last week found that 71 percent of likely caucus voters say they would judge the candidates based on their positions on economic matters. Only 14 percent listed social issues.
Randy and Debbie Simpson, owners of an upholstery business from rural Warren County just south of Des Moines, are divided about whom to vote come January. Randy likes Bachmann because she "understands family"; Debbie likes Perry because of his proposal to make being in Congress a part-time job and the fact that "more traditionally a man is a leader, even though I'm a woman." Both agreed that their candidate must be pro-life, but they said they wouldn't all that surprised that the economy ruled the day in the national debate. "I think the current president has caused such turmoil, kept things in a ruckus that it forces people to think of all the economic issues, the jobs and all that," Debbie said.
Throughout the event, I kept thinking of the old feminist mantra: "The personal is political." Activists use the phrase to encourage women to view the trouble in their personal lives as tied to a larger political system. But on Wednesday, everybody seemingly had a personal story to relay on the evils of abortion. Iowa Right to Life's Bowen told the tale of her own unplanned conception to teenage parents, whom she gleefully noted have now been married for nearly 40 years. Taking a lighter tone, Vander Plaats told of learning that he was an unplanned pregnancy. "We didn't want Bob either," Vander Plaats' mother told his sister after she became pregnant unexpectedly. "Now what would life be without him?" The crowd chimed in with a chorus of "amens" at various points when Vander Plaats iterated that we're all made "special in the image of God." For her part, Bachmann offered a description of a miscarriage and the doctor handing her the dead child after the fact. Bachmann, Santorum, and Perry were clearly at ease discussing the role their faith and pro-life stances play in personal terms. "For me it's not something political, it's all of life," Bachmann said. Gingrich hit all the right notes, laying out a coldly reasoned argument that personhood could be extended through the 14th Amendment. Yet he lacks the same emoting and personal connection that's the favored styling among Iowa's social conservatives.