No presidential candidate has run a campaign as aggressively supportive of abortion as the one Barack Obama did this year. The fact that he won — and by a bigger margin than any Republican has managed in more than 20 years — suggests that the politics surrounding the issue has changed, to the disadvantage of pro-lifers.
Abortion has never been a top voting issue for most people. Among those people who do vote on abortion, however, pro-lifers have outnumbered pro-choicers. In 1988, ABC’s exit poll found that 33 percent of voters had considered abortion a “very important” issue in making their decision, and they favored George H. W. Bush over Michael Dukakis by a margin of 54 percent to 45 percent. The CBS exit poll that year found 7 percent of the voters saying that it was one of the issues that mattered most, and they had broken 65 percent to 33 percent for the pro-life Republican.
That pro-life advantage persisted in the exit polls of 1992, 1996, and 2000. In that last year, 14 percent of voters in the Los Angeles Times exit poll said abortion was a top issue, and they picked George W. Bush over Al Gore, 58 to 41 percent. The exit pollsters stopped asking the question after that election, but other polls have almost always found the same pattern. Gallup has concluded that the issue of abortion has won Republicans a net 2 percent of the total vote in every presidential election from 1996 until today, except for 2004, when it netted them 7 percent. The Polling Company, a conservative firm hired by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), found that 25 percent of voters in 2008 identified opposition to abortion as having affected their vote, compared with 9 percent who said support for legal abortion affected theirs.
Among the majority of voters not firmly committed to one side of the abortion debate, polls found, not surprisingly, ambivalence. Thus results depended heavily on the wording of questions. Asked whether the decision to abort should be between a woman and her doctor, a majority said yes; asked whether abortion should be illegal with exceptions for pregnancies that threaten the woman’s life or resulted from rape or incest, a majority also said yes. Even in the early 1990s, the period of strongest public support for the pro-choice position, Bill Clinton felt it necessary to pay respect to this ambivalence by saying that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.”
The majority seemed to be not only ambivalent about, but hostile to, the subject, unhappy when politicians brought it up. That sentiment imposed limits on both sides. It worked in favor of a status quo in which abortion is legal and common but not, usually, funded by taxpayers. It worked against rhetorical aggressiveness coming from either pro-life or pro-choice politicians.
In recent years many polls have suggested that the public is moving in a pro-life direction. Between 1994 and 2012, the percentage of Americans who told Gallup that abortion should be legal under “any” or “most” circumstances fell from 46 to 38 percent, while the percentage who said it should be legal in few or no circumstances rose from 51 to 59. Americans also became much more willing to describe themselves as “pro-life,” and less willing to describe themselves as “pro-choice.” (A poll out this week found movement in the pro-choice direction, but it may be an outlier.)
This year, Obama campaigned more or less as he would have in a country much more strongly and unequivocally pro-choice than these polls suggest. The Democratic platform no longer expresses the wish that abortion be “rare,” and the president and first lady have repeatedly said it should be an option for their daughters when they are older. The party’s convention in Charlotte at times resembled a NARAL conference.