A Pro-Choice Surge
The politics of abortion change

Pro-choice advocates rally in Richmond, Va., January 22, 2013.


Ramesh Ponnuru

A risky strategy, one might have thought; and I wrote as much in this space. When the election was over, though, Obama had won convincingly — and the pro-life advantage had been erased. The Polling Company’s post-election survey for the NRLC in 2012 found that the percentage of Americans who cast their presidential ballots against abortion, so to speak, held steady at 25, while the percentage who voted the other way jumped to 24.

The press has not noticed this sudden shift, because for the most part it didn’t recognize the existence of a pro-life advantage in the first place. Even those journalists who have noticed a shift have misunderstood it. John Judis, a perceptive liberal analyst, wrote in The New Republic soon after the election that Obama had been aided by “Democrats’ championing of abortion rights. The country was once evenly divided on this issue, but in this year’s exit polls, 59 percent of the electorate said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Those voters went overwhelmingly for Obama.”

Those numbers are not actually all that far off from the ones in the 2004 exit poll. Back then, 55 percent of voters thought abortion should be legal in most or all cases. (For some reason, polls that ask Americans whether abortion should be legal in “most cases” consistently yield larger results for the pro-choice side than ones that ask about “most circumstances.”) The modest difference appears to be entirely a function of the fact that more of the voters in 2012 were self-described liberals than in 2004 (25 percent vs. 21 percent). That change, in turn, probably reflects the increased Democratic edge in turning out voters at least as much as the growth of liberalism. In short, public opinion does not appear to have shifted substantially to the pro-choice side.

The media’s coverage of the 2012 elections cannot explain the shift in voting patterns any more than changes in public opinion can. That coverage was, to be sure, dismal. The Democratic platform called for taxpayer funding and endorsed a right to abortion without specifying what if any limits should be placed on it. The Republican platform endorsed a ban on abortion without specifying what if any exceptions it should have. The press obsessed about the Republican platform — which it described as calling for a ban on abortion even in the cases of rape and incest — and almost entirely ignored the ways the Democratic platform diverged from the views of moderate voters on the issue.

As a state senator, Obama opposed providing legal protection to pre-viable infants who survived attempted abortions. In 2008 the press bought every excuse the Obama campaign produced to minimize what he had done, no matter how easily disproven; in 2012 it largely ignored the issue as ancient history while reporting on Republican extremism.

The press has tilted heavily toward the pro-choice side of the abortion debate for as long as there has been one. That bias, however, has not kept pro-lifers from winning elections in the past, or from winning them in part because of the abortion issue.

What changed this year appears to be that pro-lifers gave their opponents, and journalists sympathetic to them, ammunition. Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock took an unpopular position — opposition to abortion in the cases of rape and incest — and expressed it in ways that drove their support down still further. Press attention to their remarks, the absurd intensity of which was quite predictable, highlighted the extent to which many pro-lifers are out of sync with public opinion.