Issue Salience and the Pro-Life Electoral Advantage

On Thursday, Will Saletan had an interesting article in Slate, in which he wonders why pro-lifers are able to exert some influence over abortion policy when, according to Saletan, most Americans favor keeping abortion legal. He suggests that this is the case because there is often an intensity gap between “pro-life” and “pro-choice” voters, with the former being smaller in number but more enthusiastic and serious about the issue.

According to Saletan, however, all is not lost for supporters of legal abortion. When abortion becomes a more salient issue — that is to say, when a relatively higher percentage of people consider abortion to be important — much of the pro-life electoral advantage disappears. Saletan presents polling data from Pew, Gallup, and Quinnipac which show that the pro-life electoral advantage is at its highest when a relatively low percentage of voters consider abortion important. However, as more voters consider the abortion issue important, the pro-life advantage diminishes. Unsurprisingly, Saletan advises candidates supporting legal abortion to raise the salience of abortion during campaigns.

Methodologically, one can quibble with certain aspects of Saletan’s analysis. He cherry-picks poll numbers which exaggerate the support for legal abortion. Also, neither the questions analyzing abortion attitudes, nor the questions measuring the salience of abortion were asked in the exact same way. This probably skews the results somewhat. But the data Saletan presents show a fairly consistent pattern.

Furthermore, Saletan’s analysis is consistent with recent history. The in opportune statements by U.S. Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Murdouck coupled with the Democratic party’s “War on Women” rhetoric did little to change overall public opinion toward abortion. However, as Ramesh Ponnuru points out in his December 31 National Review article, the 2012 election saw increased turnout among pro-choice voters. It also saw pro-choice people more likely to cast their vote based on the abortion issue. 

That said, pro-lifers are not powerless. History shows that pro-lifers can affect the dynamics of campaigns. The debate over partial-birth abortion in the 1990s and 2000s succeeded in motivating pro-life voters, and also demonstrated the extreme position that many Democratic elected officials had on the issue of abortion. Pro-lifers would do well to think of similar legislative initiatives to motivate and inspire pro-life voters in future election cycles.

— Michael 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.

Michael J. New — Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C. He received a ...

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