Katrina Trinko and David French both had some good insights about Thursday’s New York Times article about young voters and social conservatism, but I wanted to add some of my own thoughts. For as long as I can remember, mainstream-media outlets are constantly advising Republicans to focus on economic issues and either downplay or moderate their stances on social issues. This article is certainly no exception.
However, aspects of the Times article are very misleading. Katrina is correct that throughout the entire article the Times does not cite any polling data on abortion. They instead rely on quotes and anecdotes from the people they chose to interview. They most likely chose to do that becayse much survey evidence shows that the pro-life position has made some very impressive gains among young adults.
This can be seen in several ways. The General Social Survey (GSS) has been collecting opinion data on abortion using the exact same battery of questions since the 1970s. In most years, respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 tend to be the least sympathetic toward the pro-life position. However, starting around the year 2000, those between the ages 18 and 29 were on average significantly more pro-life than those from other age cohorts.
In July, the National Right to Life Committee released the results of a survey which found that young adults between 18 to 44 were more likely to support the D.C. Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act than older Americans. Finally, Students for Life of America (SFLA) commissioned a professional survey on the abortion attitudes of young adults ages 18–24. A full 44 percent of respondents in the SFLA survey thought that abortions should either be illegal or only legal in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the life of the mother. This is roughly equal to the 45 percent who thought abortion should be legal in a wider range of circumstances (the rest were unsure or declined to state an opinion).
Same-sex marriage is certainly a trickier issue for young conservatives. Many surveys show that young people are more sympathetic to same-sex marriage than older Americans. It also does not surprise me that the percentage of self-identified young Republicans who support same-sex marriage has increased since the year 2000.
However, conservatives need not despair. The polls on same-sex marriage today are almost identical to the polls on abortion during the 1970s. Again, during those years, many surveys showed that young people were much less likely to self identify as “pro-life” than older Americans. Indeed many political analysts, even some within the pro-life movement, had serious questions about the right-to-life movement’s long term durability during this time.
Thankfully, the pro-life movement did not give up and instead invested in educational and outreach efforts. Countless surveys show that these efforts have succeeded in shifting public opinion in a pro-life direction during the past 20 years — with some of the largest gains taking place among young adults. Some people think that popular culture’s depiction of single motherhood as non-disruptive in television shows such as Friends and Murphy Brown and movies such as Juno has also increased pro-life sentiment among those between the ages 18 to 29.
Obviously the parallel between abortion and same-sex marriage is not a perfect one. Unlike same-sex marriage, there is a clear, suffering victim in abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court intervened at a fairly early point during the abortion debate, but has not yet directly intervened in the same-sex marriage issue. That said, the history of the abortion debate shows that conservatives have the ability to frame issues and raise arguments that can positively affect opinion trends. Political and cultural developments also sometimes produce some unexpected shifts in public opinion. Demography is not necessarily destiny.