March 14 (Bloomberg) -- Americans overwhelmingly regard the debate over President Barack Obama’s policy on employer-provided contraceptive coverage as a matter of women’s health, not religious freedom, rejecting Republicans’ rationale for opposing the rule. More than three-quarters say the topic shouldn’t even be a part of the U.S. political debate.
More than six in 10 respondents to a Bloomberg National Poll -- including almost 70 percent of women -- say the issue involves health care and access to birth control, according to the survey taken March 8-11.
That conflicts with Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, who say Obama is violating religious freedom by requiring employers -- including those with religious objections to birth control -- to provide a way for women to obtain contraceptive coverage as part of their insurance plans.
The results suggest the Republican candidates’ focus on contraception is out of sync with the U.S. public. Seventy-seven percent of poll respondents say birth control shouldn’t be a topic of the political debate, while 20 percent say it should.
“These candidates are talking to a relatively small subset even among Republicans,” said J. Ann Selzer, of Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., who conducted the telephone poll of 1,002 respondents. “They may have the feeling, and their polls may be showing them, that this is a way in and this is a wedge issue within the party, but this does not dovetail with the views of the majority in the U.S.”
Fire Rush Limbaugh
More than half of those interviewed also say radio host Rush Limbaugh, who called a female law student testifying publicly in favor of birth-control coverage a “slut” and “prostitute,” should be fired based solely on those comments.
Republicans are more likely than respondents generally to see the controversy over contraception as an issue of religious liberty, with 54 percent viewing it that way, compared with 42 percent who say it was a matter of health-care access.
While Democrats have charged that the Republican position amounts to a “war on women,” the poll indicates that they aren’t benefiting from it in respondents’ perceptions of the two parties. The survey also suggests that the advantage Democrats have historically enjoyed among women may have narrowed.
Forty-nine percent of women say they would choose Obama over Romney, the front-runner in delegates in the Republican primary, compared with 45 percent who say they’d pick the former Massachusetts governor. In 2008, Obama won 56 percent of the women’s vote to 43 percent for the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, according to national exit polls.
Obama Against Santorum
Obama’s advantage among women is more pronounced over Santorum, a Roman Catholic who says he is personally opposed to contraception and has made such social issues a hallmark of his campaign. Women also back Obama over the former Pennsylvania senator 51 percent to 42 percent, while voters overall choose the president by a narrower six-point margin.
At the same time, women’s impressions of the Democratic Party are only slightly better than of the Republicans. Forty-nine percent view Democrats favorably and 42 percent see them unfavorably, according to the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points; 44 percent regard Republicans favorably compared with 48 percent who see them unfavorably.
“I don’t understand why it’s even an issue in politics --a woman’s decision of what she’s going to do for her health and her family,” said Alycia Vetter, a 44-year-old Republican and Romney supporter in Denver. “And I’m pro-life.”
Work to Do
Margie Omero, a Democratic pollster who has studied women’s opinions, says the results suggest that while Republicans may have erred by emphasizing the contraception issue, Democrats have work to do before the November elections to gain the support of more women.
“It’s up to candidates and the parties and women’s organizations to really make a case about why it’s an important distinction between the parties,” said Omero of the Washington-based firm Momentum Analysis. “We’re going to absolutely need women voters and need to have a strong gender gap, and Republicans have handed us a really strong example.”
The poll also indicated that most Americans aren’t comfortable mixing religion and policy. Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed -- including almost half of Republicans -- say a president’s religious beliefs should never influence his policy decisions compared with a quarter who say they should sometimes, and 14 percent who say they should most or all of the time.
Fifty-five percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who support Romney say religious beliefs should never influence decisions, compared with just 29 percent of Santorum supporters.
Men are more likely to say contraception coverage is a matter of religious liberty, with 38 percent saying so compared with 28 percent of women who see it that way. Majorities of both genders -- 57 percent of men and 68 percent of women -- say the issue is one of women’s health and access to birth control.
While a majority of Republicans see the topic as a question of religious freedom, only 36 percent of independents and 12 percent of Democrats agree. By contrast, 60 percent of independents and 81 percent of Democrats call it a matter of women’s health.
Let’s Move On
“I don’t think it should have made it into the political realm, but I thought in the United States that you have freedom of religion, and the president made it an issue when he started telling people that they had to violate their beliefs,” said Brian Chapman Thomson, 50, a Santorum supporter from Dallas.
The Obama administration originally said that as part of the new health-care law, religiously affiliated institutions would have to pay for birth-control coverage for employees. After protests by Catholic bishops, the administration announced a compromise, saying that while the institutions wouldn’t have to pay for contraceptives, their insurance companies would.
Thomson says it’s appropriate for Republicans to focus on social issues in the primary, yet he is ready to move on from the contraception issue. Santorum “had a good ride, but he needs to move on to other topics,” such as the economy, Thomson says. “Let’s hear what else you have to say.”
As for Limbaugh’s derogatory comments about Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, men are split over whether the radio host should be let go from his job -- 49 percent say so, while 47 percent disagree. Fifty-six percent of women support the move compared with 39 percent who don’t. Almost one in three Republicans, 30 percent, say Limbaugh should be fired for the remarks.
Limbaugh mocked Democrats on the air yesterday for having thought his comments about Fluke were going to work to their advantage, saying they failed to gain significant headway among women voters.
“It wasn’t a big winner for them,” he said. “It didn’t work out the way they all envisioned.” Instead, he said, Obama is losing ground with women.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at or Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com