This week, the Democratic party is planning on placing its support for legal abortion front and center at their Charlotte convention. Indeed, the DNC speaker lineup includes contraception activist Sandra Fluke, NARAL president Nancy Keenan, and Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards. Democrats apparently think that linking the Romney-Ryan ticket to Todd Akin’s statements specifically and opposition to abortion more broadly will be a winning strategy in 2012.
Quite honestly, there is good reason to believe that this strategy may not work as well as expected, and could backfire. A number of polls have shown gains in pro-life public sentiment during the past 15 years. Just this May, Gallup released a poll showing that 50 percent of Americans identified themselves as pro-life. The number self-identifying as pro-choice was only 41 percent — a record low. Of course, polls do not tell the whole story. Many Americans have complicated views about abortion, and Democrats may think that they can win the spin war.
As such, Democrats will try to emphasize the fact that many Republicans oppose abortion in circumstances such as rape and incest. However, Republicans have an easy response:
Specifically, the stances of many Democrats, including President Obama, are equally unpopular — if not more so. As a state senator, President Obama opposed the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. He has signed legislation which provides taxpayer funding for abortions in Washington, D.C. Furthermore, most Democrats at the federal level oppose even incremental pro-life laws.
Of course, a substantial amount of polling data show that most Americans oppose both late-term abortions and taxpayer funding for abortions. There is also broad support for a range of incremental pro-life laws. In fact, strong support for some pro-life laws comes from the very demographic groups that Democrats are trying to reach. A poll released by the National Right to Life Committee this summer showed that women were more likely than men to support the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would prevent abortion in the nation’s capital after 20 weeks of gestation. Additionally, the same poll showed that young adults were more supportive of this bill than older Americans.
In fairness, social issues may be the best card in a weak hand for the Democratic Party. With unemployment rates persistently high and GDP growth slow, Democrats cannot emphasize economic issues. But the weak economy means voters haven’t paid attention to foreign policy, either. In, fact, there may be some parallels between this convention and the 1992 RNC convention. Most of the media coverage which followed that convention was misleading and unfair. However, because of President Bush’s tax increases and the lingering recession, Republicans couldn’t campaign on the economy. The fall of the Soviet Union reduced interest in foreign affairs. As a result, social issues took on a more prominent role than usual. The same dynamic may be at work this week in Charlotte.
As such, pro-lifers have to be ready to counter the Democrats and win the spin war. If the Democrats emphasize abortion rights and fail to receive a bounce in the polls following the convention, that would provide plenty of good evidence that support for legal abortion is not a winning campaign issue. Of course, the Democratic party will not abandon its pro-abortion stance overnight because of this. Supporters of legal abortion provide a great deal of financial backing to the Democratic party. Still, political parties do not stick with issues which are political losers. And a poor showing after the convention may provide some much-needed momentum to Democrats who have been quietly campaigning to get the party adopt some pro-life positions and be more inclusive of pro-life individuals.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan – Dearborn, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New