A Republican perspective – partial birth abortion as an electoral issue – Abortion Views: Are They Changing?
Abortion is not the simple, two-dimensional issue it was believed to be after the Webster decision nine years ago; there are multiple facets and many more shades of gray than expected.
The “Republican perspective on abortion” is not as clearcut as the Democratic one. The GOP does not shut down pro-choice supporters the way Democrats insist that pro-lifers have no room in their party (remember the liberals’ definition of “open-minded” – anyone who agrees with them).
In general, outside of some upscale areas and parts of the Northeast, a pro-life candidate in a Republican primary has a significant advantage over a pro-choice candidate.
In the general election, Republican candidates do need to do a balancing act between their own position and the parts of their constituency base that don’t agree with them. Gov. Christie Whitman’s (R-NJ) veto of a partial-birth abortion ban is the textbook case.
Part of the liberal overreach on abortion has been to assume that abortion would be fought on a two-dimensional battlefield. Instead, Americans generally are of two minds about the issue.
On one hand, Americans prefer that government not tell people how to live their private lives. On the other, Americans do not support the concept of abortion and instead prefer reasonable, rational restrictions. The public strongly supports a partial-birth ban, parental consent, a ban on taxpayer funding and prohibition of abortion for gender selection.
We test public opinion on abortion by using one of two questions – either the “semantics” question (are you pro-life or pro-choice?) or the “circumstances” question (a six-part scale measuring support for different levels of restriction).
While Americans are pro-choice by 50 to 41 percent on the “semantics” question, we generally find the numbers even out on the “circumstances” question – meaning that about five percent say they are pro-choice but take a pro-life position.
On the “circumstances” question, a majority of Americans come down in the “muddled middle” – either saying abortion should be legal only in the first three months of pregnancy or that it should be legal only in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother.
The other question we test in polls is the “importance” question, which is used to measure single issue intensity. That question, when crosstabbed with either the “semantics” or “circumstances” question, gives us a read on the voting impact of the issue. Exit polls nearly always show that voters who made their decision based on abortion are strongly pro-life.
While there may be local differences, nationally, Republicans are a pro-life party. On the “semantics” question, GOPers are pro-life by 54-42 percent, with base voters even more pro-life (58-37 percent).
It is difficult to point to general election campaigns since 1989 in which the abortion issue has played an overwhelming role. Instead, it has tended to be a subtext issue, used by prolife candidates to rally their base and pro-choice candidates as a symbolic issue to peel off suburban women with an “extremist” attack against Republicans.
Abortion is not a metaphor for the gender gap. While single-issue pro-choice voters are overwhelmingly women, overall there is little attitudinal difference between men and women on abortion.
In ’96, of the nine Republican freshmen Senators elected, exit polling found the newly elected GOP Senator with the largest gender gap to be Susan Collins of Maine (a pro-choice woman), while the new GOP Senator with the smallest gap was Mike Enzi of Wyoming (running against a credible pro-choice Democratic woman).
The best demographic predictors of a person’s abortion stance are religiosity and socio-economic status. Higher income voters are more pro-choice, which is why Democrats use the issue.
Some candidates say planning a strategy on abortion is an unnecessary headache, because it is a court issue and any legislative changes will just be “nibbling around the edges.” That’s nuts. No matter what your position is, you need to get together with your campaign team and discuss your philosophy and the specific nuances of the issue. Failure to do so increases the odds of being blind-sided by an unexpected angle of questioning in an interview or debate.
Thinking through your abortion position also increases the likelihood that you will be consistent. Inconsistency or hypocritical statements can doom a campaign.
Finally, while voters respect consistency from candidates, they also prefer that a candidate show respect for a differing point of view.
Abortion is not the lead news story it once was, it will always be part of the public, political debate. War-gaming your abortion strategy should always be part of a Republican candidate’s campaign planning process.
Glen Bolger and Bill McInturff are partners in the Republican polling firm, Public Opinion Strategies.
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