Abortion: The New Wedge Issue

Last Friday, the Obama campaign released an ad in several swing states attacking Mitt Romney for his stance on abortion. “It’s a scary time to be a woman—Mitt Romney is just so out of touch,” says a woman named Jenni. A narrator explains that Mitt Romney opposes requiring insurance coverage for contraceptives, supports overturning Roe v. Wade, and once backed a bill that would outlaw all abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. The ad concludes: “We need to attack our problems, not a woman’s choice.” 

In recent elections, presidential candidates have been wary of diving into explosive abortion politics; in 2008, only $4 million was spent on abortion-related advertising, compared with $39 million on budget-related ads or $88 million on environmental ones. It's an issue the public remains divided on. According to Gallup, the proportion of Americans identifying as “pro-choice” hit a record low of 41 percent this year, while those describing themselves as “pro-life” hovered around 50 percent. “The minute you take positions on the abortion issue, there are a lot of people you're alienating,” explains Susan Carroll, a Senior Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Usually, candidates try to run away from the issue.” So why is the Obama campaign running toward it?

One reason might be to remind voters of the “War on Women.” Republican lawmakers' and presidential candidates' ugly policy proposals this spring—forcing vaginal ultrasounds, defunding Planned Parenthood, weakening the Violence Against Women Act, fighting access to contraception—created an opportunity for Democrats to shave off women voters from the GOP. President Obama had the support of fewer than half of women under 50 in February; by April he was polling above 60 percent, outgunning Romney 2-to-1. But the gap has narrowed in recent months. The Obama ad serves both to remind women of the GOP’s recent history and to tie Romney to the attack on reproductive rights.

Still, the question remains why the Obama campaign didn’t stick to safer ground, focusing on the GOP’s attacks on contraception or maternity care—both broadly unpopular. The answer lies in the Republican Party’s shift to the right. A decade ago, between 30 and 40 percent of Republicans identified as pro-choice. This May, that number was a scant 22 percent. It’s hard to know whether that’s the result of Republicans changing their minds about abortion, or pro-choice respondents ceasing to identify as Republicans. But the result is the same: The party is increasingly uniform in its opposition to abortion. 

This, in turn, has opened up an opportunity for Democrats. For most Americans, the abortion question is not all-or-nothing—it’s about where one draws the line. Opinion polling on abortion is highly sensitive to phrasing; despite a majority of the country identifying as “pro-life,” polls also consistently show that a majority of respondents supports access to abortion in at least some circumstances. Politicians have been walking this tightrope for years—“I’m personally pro-life but believe in a woman’s right to choose”; “I believe the issue should be left up to the states to decide”; "Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare." With the GOP moving further to the right, a wider space has opened for Democrats to pick up abortion moderates. As Ed Kilgore wrote in Washington Monthly earlier this year, if a woman’s right to choose continues to be eroded around the country, it could become more likely that the quiet pro-choice sentiments of the American majority will emerge as a political force.

Romney, meanwhile, is feeling the squeeze. His campaign has disputed the charge that the former Massachusetts governor wants to ban abortion in all circumstances, pointing to remarks he’s made that he supports exceptions for rape, incest, and maternal health. But Romney is limited in how forcefully he can counter the Obama team’s claims lest he upset the conservative base. It’s the basic problem Romney faces across the board: He must appease absolutists while still appearing reasonable enough for the general election. It’s a balancing act the Republican Party's standardbearers are going to have to struggle with as long as the party champions ideological purity. 

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