Four years ago, the economic collapse came too little, too late for Mitt Romney, who had already lost the Republican nomination to John McCain after Mike Huckabee came in and swooped up the social conservative vote.
This time around for Mitt, the economic issue may have come too early.
As CNN reported Monday, Romney trails Rick Santorum by 10 percentage points among registered Republicans nationwide in the Gallup daily tracking poll. The former Pennsylvania senator has the backing of 36 percent of nationwide Republicans, while Romney trails at 26 percent.
The swing is surprising since many media pundits predicted after Romney's Florida win that the candidate just had too much momentum and money to be stopped. However according to Timothy Carney of the Washington Examiner, the recent economic uptick along with the White House's controversial decisions regarding religion has undercut Romney.
"Recent economic good news hurts Mitt Romney's case that he is the right man to take on President Obama," Carney writes. "Meanwhile, Obama's decision to ignite a culture war by making it illegal for Catholics to obey their own teachings on contraception could persuade Republican voters that Rick Santorum might be the best man to battle the president in November."
And it seems Santorum knows which drums to beat. Since his wins in Missiouri, Colorado and Minnesota, the presidential hopeful has called climate change science "political science," blasted Obama for what Santorum calls "phony theology" and has recently implied the White House looks down on the disabled through mandating prenatal tests in the president's health plan.
"One of the things that you don't know about ObamaCare in one of the mandates is they require free prenatal testing," Santorum said, according to NBC News. "Why? Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and, therefore, less care that has to be done, because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society. That, too, is part of ObamaCare — another hidden message as to what President Obama thinks of those who are less able than the elites who want to govern our country."
Clamoring up the culture war rhetoric is drawing Santorum the social conservative vote, as it did for Huckabee four years ago. However according to Jeff Bell of the Wall Street Journal, Santorum isn't the one bringing up the issues, he is just unapologetic about them.
"He goes out of his way to say that he has an economic platform, he isn't just about social issues," Bell told the Journal. "(But Obama and his supporters are) going to imply that Santorum wants to impose all the tenets of traditional morality on the American population. He doesn't. He just doesn't want the opposite imposed on Middle America."
The "opposite" Bell is talking about stems from White House clashes with the Catholic Church over contraception mandates in the president's health care plan, which religious groups said defied their religious liberty. The president compromised on the issue by making the insurance companies responsible for the coverage instead of religious institutions.
However with contraception on the brain, Santorum's past remarks on the subject have now come under scrutiny.
"I think it’s harmful to women," Santorum said in a 2006 interview. "I think it’s harmful to our society to have a society that says that sex outside of marriage is something that should be encouraged or tolerated particularly among the young, and it has I think we’ve seen very, very harmful long-term consequences to the society. Birth control to me enables that, and I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for our country.”
Santorum's comments seem as though they should generally follow a Catholic like himself, considering the church is against contraceptive use. However according to a CNN poll, only 11 percent of Catholics polled said they should always obey official church teachings on moral issues like birth control and abortion.
That poll also coincides with numbers from Public Policy Polling that shows, despite Santorum's stance with the Catholic Church on contraception, Catholics prefer Romney over Santorum by 43 percent to 31 percent. On the flip side, Santorum is favored by Protestants 47 percent to Romney's 30 percent.
Michael Dougherty of The Atlantic points out that if the economy continues to improve, and Obama can make amends with the Catholic vote, the Protestant/ social conservative wing of the Republican Party may not settle for Romney.
"Mitt Romney can be taught to sing from the conservative hymnal on these issues, but he sounds out of tune on them. He's happy enough to represent social conservatives on these issues, but it clearly isn't the reason he got into this race," Dougherty writes. "Romney is still in a great position to become the nominee. But the Republicans may have a hard time answering the most important question about their nominee: Why him?"