Republicans need not compromise their principles on abortion to win national elections.
Ever since election night, a large crowd of political pundits have charitably contributed their two-cents on why the Republican Party lost and, more importantly, how it needs to change going forward. While the advice has varied, a strong plurality has concluded that the Republican Party frightened away too many voters with its rigid stance on social issues like abortion and women’s rights.
As the theory goes, the Republican Party’s emphatic opposition to abortion portrays a fringe opinion at odds with the American people. This in turn discourages women and young voters—voting blocs alleged to passionately favor unrestricted abortions—from supporting the Republican Party, ultimately denying them a national victory.
Sorry to shut the door on the echo chamber, but the polling data just does not have enough amps to carry these reverberating howls wall to wall. Recent polling clearly shows that the Republican Party has more to lose from hastily retreating on abortion than from keeping the pro-life plank in its platform. Instead, Republicans should focus their attention on their true weakness: their ability and willingness to defend their platform’s message.
An Increasingly Pro-Life America:
Opposition to abortion is at a record high. According to the data (see here, here and here), public support for abortion has declined consistently since its peak in the mid 1990’s. Recent polls reveal that only 41% of Americans self-identified as pro-choice, as compared to the 50% who self-identified as pro-life. That is a nine-point margin in favor of the unborn. The rise spans across all three political groups—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—and it cuts across every age and every gender. The trend is such that Gallup has cautiously labeled the pro-life position “the New Normal on Abortion.”
Meaningfully, women are just as likely as men to self-identify as pro-life. A May 2010 Gallup survey found that 49% of men and 48% of women self-identified as pro-life, a difference well within the margin of error. The finding was not an aberration. Gallup notes that men and women have consistently held similar views about the legalization of abortion sinceGallup began asking the question over thirty-years ago. Despite the often-heard narrative, Republicans are just as likely to court women voters with a pro-life agenda as they do men.
Young Americans also trend pro-life. At the time of Roe v. Wade, adults aged 18 to 29 were the most supportive of legal abortion. However, since the mid 1990’s, that support has wavered. Young adults are now the second least likely age group to support abortion on demand and the most likely age group to support an absolute prohibition. Forty-seven percent (47%) of these young adults self-identify as pro-life; fifty-three percent (53%) of them find abortion morally wrong. This makes today’s youth the most pro-life generation on record.
What is more, pro-life Americans vote their conscience. Pro-life voters consistently exhibit a higher degree of intensity than their pro-abortion counterparts. They also consistently view a candidate’s stance on abortion as a deciding factor in casting their ballot. Both Gallup and Pew have observed that pro-choice voters are more likely to deem abortion as an insignificant issue during elections. Pew has even observed that the abortion debate has receded in importance among liberals.
Thus, the commentators who believe that the abortion debate terminated a Romney presidency are suggesting that Republicans backpedal on the issue at the very moment that the pro-life argument has achieved viability with the American public.
A Party Unified Behind the Right to Life:
The Republican Party is unified behind its opposition to abortion. Starting in 2001, a majority of Republicans have identified as pro-life. That gap has since expanded, with 72% of Republicans self-identifying as pro-life in May 2012. Only 22% claimed the pro-choice label. That is a 50-point gap. Put another way, almost three-quarters of Republicans consider abortion morally wrong, and nearly 8 in 10 Republicans believe that abortion should be either banned or only available in a few circumstances.
Democrats are not nearly as unified. Only 58% of Democrats self-identify as pro-choice; as high as 34% self-identify as pro-life—a 24-point gap as compared to a 50-point gap. This means that Democrats experience much more dissention in their ranks when it comes to their abortion policy. Yet, it is Republicans who are called to self-reflection.
The Republican Party will not be successful if takes a position at odds with nearly three-quarters of its membership. This is particularly true when you consider intensity and passion behind those members. The amount of votes gained by pivoting on abortion would not be enough to offset the defection, or disengagement, of already committed Republican votes.
Republicans Represent America’s Views on Abortion
Moreover, the Republican Party represents the public’s views on abortion just as well as the Democrat Party. A common response to the above argument is that self-identification does not correspond with policies. As abortion advocates are quick to remind, only 22% of Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in all circumstance. This means that many self-identified pro-lifers do not want an absolute ban on abortion. Many would retain certain exceptions, such as cases of rape and/or incest. Others might permit abortions in the first trimester. Abortion advocates therefore argue that, by not including these popular exceptions explicitly in their platform, the Republican Party caters to extremists and disregards the common voter. This argument fails for two reasons.
First, the Romney/Ryan ticket promoted an agenda that allowed for abortions in cases of rape, incest, and life of the mother. Yet, despite adopting a compromise that resembled the majority position on abortion, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party could not duck the extremist label. This in part was due to poor messaging, something which will be addressed below, but it also shows that concessions alone will not refashion the party’s image or attract new voters.
Second, the Democrat Party is no less extreme. During the last election cycle, the Democrat Party rejected all proposed limits on abortion; this includes even popular restrictions like late-term abortions and parental consent laws. The Party also removed “rare” from President Clinton’s famous centrist goal of making abortion “safe, legal, and rare.”
Such language does not align with the majority position. What Democrats seem to forget is that while only 22% of Americans support a total ban on abortions, only 27% of Americans want abortion on demand. Another 50% of Americans want the middle position—legal abortions, but with basic restrictions. If you add this plurality with the number of pro-lifers who believe in a complete ban, nearly three-out-of-four Americans (72%) want to limit abortions beyond what Democrats would permit. Nothing in the Democrat Party’s platform reflects this consensus.
An Important Caveat:
The Republican Party has an abortion problem, but it is not the Party’s pro-life stance. According to Pew, more Americans believe that Democrats better represent the people’s views on abortion. This belief continues no matter how closely the Republican platform mimics the general population or how far removed the Democrat platform is from the public‘s preferred compromise of limited legalization.
In part, this extremist image is beyond the control of current Republicans. America’s pro-life tilt is a modern phenomenon, and Republicans campaigned in defense of the unborn before public sentiment caught-up—heck, some in the media still haven’t. As a result, the Republican Party suffers from a preset narrative that characterizes its platform and leaders as out of touch.
However, the Republican Party does itself no favors. Whether it be the erroneous depiction of rape or a refusal to prepare for tough questions, Republicans seem unable to articulate a positive and coherent defense of their platform. They do not communicate what the Republican platform is, how that platform better mimics the American public, or why the founding principles, if not compassion, back limits on abortion. The Republican Party suffers from a messaging problem, not a pro-life problem. Until Republicans can stand confidently in their pro-life beliefs, they will not change the narrative. They will remain on the defensive and continue to be the party of extremists, notwithstanding public opposition to abortion.
The Republican Party will not solve its election woes by retreating from the defense of the unborn. The American public has grown increasingly pro-life, and Republicans are unified in their objection to abortion on demand. A hasty retreat will likely spurn more votes than it attracts. Republicans instead must learn how to communicate a pro-life message. They must be willing to confront tough questions, and they must give confident, well-rationalized answers. Republicans struggle against a preset narrative that depicts them as extreme, irrespective of how their position mimics public opinion. But, they will not rewrite the story until they push back.
The pro-life position is more marketable to American voters today than it has been in decades. Republicans just need to learn how to stand up and follow through on the sale.
Kathleen Hunker is a graduate of Columbia University School of Law. She also has an LL.M. in Public Law and Human Rights from the University College London.