The New Politics of Abortion

In 1980 the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and other pro-life lobbies put out a "hit list" of 18 pro-choice incumbents they aimed to topple in that fall's election, but this year NRLC Political Director Carol Tobias says the organization is not disclosing which races it will target. By contrast, NARAL, the main pro-choice lobby, posts on its Web site a list of 28 "key races" that it threatens to influence. This difference in outward strategy reflects dramatic changes in the politics of abortion.

Over the past 20 years, what was once a pro-life advantage has turned into a decided edge for pro-choice candidates in presidential races and in most elections outside of the deep South and the rural Midwest. If pro-choice Democrats can draw a sharp distinction this year between their support for abortion rights and Republicans' unequivocal opposition to abortion, they will stand a good chance of retaining the White House and taking back Congress.

Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, Gallup and other nonpartisan polls have registered consistent opposition to a ban on abortion and support for a qualified version of abortion rights. But the politics of abortion has never simply mirrored national polls. Rather, it has depended on the way the issue of abortion rights has been framed--whether in terms of prohibition or restriction. It has also depended on the political salience of the issue (how many voters are willing to abandon candidates because of the stand they take on abortion rights?). In the 1978 and 1980 elections, Republican pro-life candidates benefited from the way abortion was defined and from the existence of swing voters who embraced Republican candidates because they applauded their opposition to abortion.

Over the past three decades, about 35 to 40 percent of voters have supported abortion without significant restrictions, 10 to 20 percent have opposed it under all circumstances, and the remaining 40 to 55 percent have favored abortion rights with some restrictions, but have tilted pro-choice or pro-life, depending on how the issue was framed. When it has been framed simply as a debate over whether to ban abortion, these voters have usually sided with pro-choicers. But in the late 1970s, the congressional debate over abortion was not over whether to ban abortion, but was over whether the federal government should fund abortions through Medicaid. Insofar as many voters were either offended by welfare spending or wary of government subsidizing abortions, that formulation favored the pro-life side of the debate.

In some midwestern and southern states, voters were closely divided on abortion rights. In those states, Republicans enjoyed an advantage because the key swing voters consisted of southern Democrats and blue-collar Democrats in the Midwest. Their ties to the party had been loosened by the Democrats' support for civil rights and by Carter-era stagflation, but the Democrats' support for abortion rights convinced many swing voters to take the final step and back conservative Republicans. In those years, Republicans were also able to attract a previously dormant group of voters, white southern and midwestern evangelicals. These new voters saw Roe v. Wade as the latest salvo in a full-scale assault against their social and religious mores. Meanwhile, many pro-choice Republicans and independents were sufficiently alienated by Democratic economic programs and foreign policy that they were willing to overlook the Republican candidates' opposition to abortion.

In those elections, Republican candidates, backed by the NRLC and other pro-life groups, attacked pro-choice Democratic opponents for backing abortion and, more particularly, for supporting federal funding of abortion. Many of the Republicans won, including Roger Jepsen and Charles Grassley in Iowa, James Abdnor in South Dakota, and Dan Quayle in Indiana. Abortion apparently played a role in these Republican victories. In Iowa, for instance, pro-life Republicans, including presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, pulled votes from heavily Catholic and previously Democratic areas in Eastern Iowa. In Iowa's second district, which includes Catholic Dubuque, pro-life Catholic Tom Tauke won a seat in 1978 that had long been held by Democrats. In 1980 Reagan easily defeated Carter in this district, which Carter had split with Gerald Ford in 1976.

In the 1982 election, the political wheel began to turn against antiabortion Republicans. The Republicans threatened to bring a constitutional ban on abortion before Congress, which awakened pro-choice voters and changed the terms of debate. A deep recession also weakened the support of blue-collar Democrats for Republican candidates. When the pro-life lobbies and "new right" groups attempted to repeat their past success, they were rebuffed in one state after another. In Tennessee, for instance, Representative Robin Beard tried to unseat Democrat Senator Jim Sasser by attacking his support for abortion. At one point, a Beard staffer even described Sasser as a "murderer." Sasser routed Beard in the election. In West Virginia, Republican Congressman Cleveland Benedict, who claimed to be running on instructions from God, fared even worse against Democratic Senator Robert C. Byrd. These Republican failures didn't prove that anti-abortion candidates couldn't win, but they showed that if Republicans attempted to run primarily as pro-life candidates, they couldn't win even in states like Tennessee and West Virginia, where sentiment on abortion was much more evenly divided than it was in the Northeast or the far West.

In northeastern and far western states, voters more clearly favored pro-choice candidates. In California, Republican primary voters nominated pro-choice Attorney General George Deukmejian as their candidate for governor over pro-life Lieutenant Governor Mike Curb. Not a single pro-life Republican or Democrat would win a major office in California for the remainder of the century. The same thing happened in Massachusetts when pro-choice Democrat Michael Dukakis ousted pro-life incumbent Edward King in the Democratic primary. That was the end of pro-life politicians even in heavily Catholic Massachusetts.

In 1989 the politics of abortion took still another turn toward the pro-choice position. In July the Supreme Court ruled in the Missouri case Webster v. Reproductive Health Services that states could regulate access to abortion. Webster made abortion a state issue as well as a national one, and it raised the specter of states creating de facto prohibitions on abortion. The debate was once again over whether to ban abortion. In two bellwether gubernatorial elections that November in New Jersey and Virginia, pro-choice Democrats defeated pro-life Republicans partly by openly attacking their opposition to abortion. Unlike the pro-choice Democrats of 1982, they spotlighted the party differences on this issue. Since then, pro-choice Democrats in the North and the far West, and even in border states like Virginia and Missouri, have enjoyed a significant advantage. Even in many deep South states, Democrats no longer are at a disadvantage because they are pro-choice. In 1998 pro-choice Democrats won the governor's office in Alabama and South Carolina, and a Senate seat in North Carolina against anti-abortion Republicans.

The pro-choice advantage was a result of how the issue was defined and even more of how party alignments have changed. By 1989 the white evangelicals who flocked to conservative Republicans in the late 1970s had become stalwart party members. The so-called Reagan Democrats from the North have continued to vacillate, but not over whether a candidate supports or opposes abortion. The key groups that were likely to change candidates based on the politics of abortion were pro-choice Republicans and independents. Beginning in 1989, they began supporting pro-choice Democrats over pro-life Republicans. In the 1989 Virginia governor's race, for instance, pro-choice Democrat Doug Wilder got about 60 percent of the white suburban vote in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Most of these voters were pro-choice moderates who in previous elections had backed Republican candidates.

In the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections, pro-choice Republicans and independents shunned the Republican pro-life candidate. According to a study by political scientist Alan Abramowitz, 17 percent of pro-choice Republicans defected from George Bush in 1992, while only 6 percent of pro-life Democrats failed to vote for Bill Clinton. Perhaps the most dramatic results were in California state elections. In 1998 Democratic gubernatorial pro-choice candidate Gray Davis got 20 percent of the Republican vote and carried independents over his pro-life Republican opponent by 53 to 35 percent. Liberal pro-choice incumbent Barbara Boxer, who was targeted for defeat by Republican lobbies, got 15 percent of the Republican vote and carried independents by 50 to 42 percent over her Republican opponent. Both Davis and Boxer played up their opponents' opposition to abortion.

Just as the swing voters of 1978 and 1980 saw Democratic support for abortion as indicative of a broader Democratic identification with the 1960s counterculture, pro-choice moderates saw Republican opposition to abortion as evidence of the party's capture by the religious right. As Davis's Democratic pollster told The Washington Post, Republican Dan Lungren's opposition to abortion was his "Achilles' heel... . It became bigger than the issue itself, a guidepost for people on how ideological he was."

In the face of this pro-choice advantage, some anti-abortion Republicans have tried to downplay their convictions. In 1996, after pro-life Republican Gordon Smith had been defeated by pro-choice Democrat Ron Wyden in a special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Bob Packwood, he changed his tack on abortion. Running that fall against Tom Bruggere, a pro-choice Democrat, Smith attempted to distance himself from pro-life organizations and from the issue itself. One of Smith's ads said, "Although he opposes abortion in most cases, he would not let one issue dominate his governing style... . Too often, important issues are dominated by people on the extremes, while most of us are somewhere in the middle--like abortion." In the 1997 Virginia gubernatorial election, Republican Jim Gilmore used a similar strategy against Democrat Don Beyer. Gilmore announced that he recognized abortion was the law of the land and that he was only interested in backing "safeguards." Smith and Gilmore both won narrow victories by minimizing the damage done by their opposition to abortion.

In this year's elections, Vice President Al Gore and the Democrats will do everything they can to polarize the debate over abortion. Many pro-life Republicans will follow Smith and Gilmore's example. Texas Governor George W. Bush has already refused to pledge that, as president, he would use opposition to Roe v. Wade as a litmus test in Supreme Court appointments. Republican candidates will also try to shift the terrain of debate from banning abortion to banning "partial birth" abortions.

The danger for Bush and the Republicans is that they won't move far enough in distancing themselves from the NRLC and the anti-abortion zealots of the religious right. Pro-life lobbyists have already threatened to withdraw their support of Bush if he picks pro-choice governor Tom Ridge as his running mate. The danger for Gore or for Democratic senate hopefuls Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, Mel Carnahan in Missouri, and Hillary Clinton in New York is that they will overplay their pro-choice advantage. There are other issues that stir the electorate. If the Democrats cannot establish their superiority in running the economy or improving education, they could still lose in spite of their substantial advantage on abortion rights. ¤


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