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How Christian Right-Wing Voters in Iowa Make Abortion a Central Issue in the Caucuses

To really understand Iowa, you need to understand the primacy of abortion as an issue to the Christian right.

 After what is the most protracted, ridiculous run-up to a primary season I’ve seen in the couple of decades I’ve closely followed politics, we’re finally going to actually begin the Republican primaries, a mere three months after everyone is completely exhausted of them. The entire situation is particularly frustrating, because the majority of the focus, from the media and the candidates, has been on Iowa, even though the state has been known repeatedly to give far more weight---and even victories---to candidates that have literally no chance of winning the Republican nomination, because these candidates hit a bunch of buttons for Christian conservatives but have little appeal outside of those circles. The 2008 win for Mike Huckabee, who was quickly wiped out when a more diverse group of Republicans got a crack at primary voting, is a perfect example of this.

To make the entire situation even more frustrating, for all the hundreds of cable news hours and column inches dedicated to the Iowa caucus, abortion is rarely mentioned.  The narrative this year is that voters are mainly concerned with the economy, which translates for conservatives into vague concerns about the deficit, even though there’s no reason to think that lowering the deficit through spending cuts would do anything but exacerbate the recession. The problem with applying that logic to Iowa is that it utterly fails to explain the voting choices of the Christian right which rules the caucus in the state. The differences in economic policies between the Republicans simply aren’t dramatic enough to explain Mitt Romney’s inability to get more than a quarter of voters behind him, for one thing. For another, just because the voters say they care mostly about economic issues to a pollster doesn’t mean that they don’t vote their gut when it actually comes time to make a decision.

To really understand Iowa, you need to understand the primacy of abortion as an issue to the Christian right. It’s baffling how little attention this gets, considering the tendency of all the candidates---and especially those whose numbers in Iowa, like Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, eclipse what they can get in most other states---to make frequent statements about how they consider banning abortion to be a number one priority and the big issue of our time. Economic issues are confusing and the difference between candidates is too hazy to matter to the Republican base. Foreign policy doesn’t seem to matter that much at all to voters this year. But abortion is a nice, simple issue, and the candidates by and large seem to get what the media doesn’t: The more you pound the table and stereotype women who get abortions as heartless slatterns, the better you do in the polls.

The inability of the Beltway media to grasp this creates situations  like the one described at  Talking Points Memo, where it’s deemed some kind of mystery as to why Ron Paul has surged in the polls, nearly gaining on Romney and truly threatening to beat him on Tuesday. Paul calls himself a “libertarian,” and this is seen by the punditry as somehow in opposition to the evangelical right, a belief that seems to be based on the questionable notion that libertarianism is a separate philosophy instead of just an extremely cranky version of the same old conservatism.

It is true that if you think Republican voters in Iowa really are motivated by the economy, Paul’s newfound popularity is a bit hard to grasp. But if you realize that they’re mostly obsessed with women’s uteruses, suddenly his popularity makes a lot more sense. Paul has been blanketing Iowa with  anti-choice ads that make the risible and extremely unlikely claim that he saw doctors throwing a live baby away to let it die. This kind of story is the sort of urban myth anti-choicers exchange amongst each other: fantasies generated to justify their irrational fear and hatred of abortion providers, because the alternative is to admit that they’re just out to control women’s bodies. By speaking to anti-choice fanatics in their own language of fantasy over reality, Paul signaled that “libertarian” is a meaningless label, and that he’s actually one of the tribe. (Interestingly, the danger in indulging elaborate religious fantasies like this is that other fantasists will engage you, which Paul found out  when a radio host asked him why he didn’t swoop in and rescue the supposedly living baby. The more elaborate fantasy of the radio host inadvertently exposed the giant plot hole in Paul’s story-spinning.)

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