Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why the GOP doesn't need to shift on abortion

Here's a summary of the five-part argument I make on The Hill homepage today.

Let me preface this by saying this is purely a political analysis and doesn't get into the moral component of the issue, which is significant to both sides in this war and should, ultimately, guide a party's direction.

But politically, the election and John McCain's Sunday comments about "leaving [abortion] alone" have prompted some GOP strategists and mainstream pundits to argue that the GOP should moderate on abortion to appeal to more voters.

But that argument is based on faulty assumptions and misunderstandings about the electorate.

Here are the four realities that, politically, swirl about in abortion-war politics.

1. The country is divided on abortion.

According to a CBS poll, voters were split, 49%-48%, on Mitt Romney and Barack Obama's views on abortion.

48% held the view that abortion should either be illegal, or legal only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.

In other words, half of the electorate agreed with the abortion position of every GOP presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan.

Meanwhile, 49% said abortion should either be always legal or legal with greater restrictions, which is somewhat similar to the "safe, legal, and rare" position of Bill Clinton.

Polls about who's "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are dubious because they assume an either/or position that most Americans don't hold.

That's why the CBS poll is so important -- it actually breaks down the question into more categories; thus, giving us better insight into Americans' views.

2. Abortion isn't a litmus test for most voters.

To hear the hyperventilating over it, taking one position over the other on abortion simply doesn't seem to matter, electorally, in general elections.

According to a CBS poll, 60% said they could back a candidate with whom they disagreed on abortion, including 53% of women.

Only 38% of women said they couldn't back a candidate they disagree with on abortion.

Meanwhile, 56% of Democrats said they could vote for someone they disagree with on abortion, meaning that pro-life candidates should be able to score plenty of support in general elections.

Thus, abortion might be a litmus test for primary voters but not for the majority of general election voters.

3. The Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock comments didn't seem to hurt the GOP brand, despite the popular narrative.

Sure, everyone says Akin and Mourdock damaged the GOP brand, but there's no evidence that they damaged anyone beyond themselves and, of course, the chance to retake the Senate.

Only 13% said Akin's comments about rape and abortion reflected the views of the Republican party, and only 24% of Democrats said the same.

That means the vast majority of voters -- even Democrats! -- just didn't buy the narrative that Akin and Mourdock were candidates who made Freudian slips that reflected the sinister motives of a party bent on destroying women.

Of course, the narrative dictates that it was damaging and pundits often agree, but again, voters just didn't buy the links some liberals tried to make on the issue.

4. The GOP doesn't have a woman problem; it has a single woman problem.

Romney won married women by 7%. In 2008, Obama won them by 4%. In 2004, Bush won them by 11%. And, in 2000, Gore and Bush tied among married women.

In all of those cases except for 2000, married women voted more Republican than the electorate at-large.

So clearly, the GOP's problem is a single voter problem; not a married voter or female voter problem.

Obama won single women by a massive 67%-31% margin, but single women are simply much more liberal, and why would they suddenly jump to the Republican party just because of a shift on abortion when single women have greater sympathy for most other Democratic causes?

Thus, shifting on abortion doesn't seem likely to help the GOP with single women (who are a core Democratic constituency for many reasons and on many issues).

5. Shifting on abortion would likely lose the GOP many voters for every one voter it gained.

Evangelicals made up 26% of the voting electorate in 2012, and abortion is a deeper driver of their affinity with the GOP than any other issue. For every wavering independent the GOP might score for shifting on abortion, many of the most committed, reliable, and passionate activists for the party would tune out.

OVERALL: None of this means that the GOP can win an election based on abortion. But it does mean the GOP won't lose a presidential election based on abortion.

There's a massive myth lying out there -- that Republicans need to defend themselves on abortion because the country is against them and they have some explaining to do.

Many Republican seem to buy into this perceptual misunderstanding of the issue, as well, and treat the topic as though it's a losing issue. Well, as the polls above show, abortion is neither a losing nor a winning issue in general elections. Most voters don't view it as a litmus test, and for the ones who do, it's an even split.