Last week the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) released an analysis of abortion as an election issue. The analysis and the corresponding Forbes editorial, authored by AEI senior fellow Karlyn Bowman, attempts to argue that abortion is a relatively unimportant issue. In her op-ed Bowman states that when voters are asked to rank the importance of various issues, abortion usually comes in near the bottom. She also notes that relatively low percentage of voters cast their vote solely on the issue of abortion. But a closer look at AEI’s analysis indicates that abortion has actually increased in importance over the past 20 years. The AEI analysis also provides robust evidence that there are political benefits for candidates who take a pro-life position.
Over 20 years of polling data finds that less than one-fifth of voters identify as single-issue voters on the abortion issue. However, what is considerably more telling is how Americans actually vote. According to the AEI study, opinion on abortion is becoming a better predictor of voting behavior. In 1992 only 63 percent of Americans who thought abortion should be “illegal in all cases” voted for George H.W. Bush. But by 2012, 79 percent of Americans who thought abortion should be illegal in all circumstances voted for Mitt Romney. Similarly, over the past 20 years Democratic presidential candidates have won a progressively larger share of voters who think abortion should be “legal in all cases.”
The analysis also nicely demonstrates that there are political benefits to holding a pro-life position. It presents the results of series of Gallup surveys which show that there has been a fairly consistent increase in pro-life sentiment since the early 1990s. Additionally, it presents the results of eight Gallup polls, taken since 2001, on the importance of abortion as a voting issue. In all eight of these polls, single issue “pro-life” voters, outnumbered single issue “pro-choice” voters. This was even true in 2012 when Democrats invested heavily in a “war on women” strategy to mobilize feminist and pro-choice voters.
During the coming election season, there will doubtless be an endless parade of editorials encouraging Republicans to moderate their stance on abortion and other social issues. However, this AEI analysis nicely adds to a body of political-science research which shows that values issues are becoming increasingly salient and important to U.S. voters. It also adds to an impressive body of survey research which shows that single-issue abortion voters are more likely to be pro-life. This year, every major Republican presidential candidate has identified as pro-life. They would all do well to stay the course.