Don't Look for Much Emphasis on Abortion in the 2016 Campaign

Michael Barone
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Posted: Dec 09, 2014 12:01 AM
Don't Look for Much Emphasis on Abortion in the 2016 Campaign

Americans are divided politically along cultural, not economic, lines. Partisan preference is highly correlated with views on non-economic issues and only loosely related to economic status.

This is the norm rather than the exception in American political history. Party preference has run along regional, racial and ethnic lines more than the divisions along economic lines that became dominant in the New Deal era and began petering out in the late 1960s.

Yet, based on the 2014 electoral cycle, I believe you are not likely to hear much about cultural issues -- or social issues, as many commentators call them -- in the 2016 campaign cycle that is about to begin.

Why? Start with abortion, the most prominent cultural issue over the last 40 years, since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in all 50 states in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. At the time, politicians of both parties shunned the issue, since it divided both parties' coalitions.

Traditionally Democratic Catholics started defecting to Republicans opposed to abortion, in late 1970s Senate races and the 1980 presidential election. Traditionally Republican mainline Protestants who supported Planned Parenthood -- people like Dorothy Walker Bush, mother and grandmother of presidents -- started finding Democrats more palatable.

By the election of 1992 -- which mainstream media proclaimed the "year of the woman" in Senate races -- almost all Democratic politicians and most Democratic voters were pro-choice on abortion. Pro-life Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey was denied a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. And almost all Republican politicians (including the George Bushes) and most Republican voters were pro-life. Abortion had become a litmus test for both parties' nominations.

Through all this partisan churning, public opinion on the issue has remained pretty steady. Most Americans don't want abortion recriminalized, but most also consider it morally dubious and support measures to limit it. Young voters are less supportive of abortion than their elders.

The number of abortions and, even more, the abortion rate have been declining since the early 1980s. Abortion has become like cigarette smoking: permitted but disfavored, practiced largely by downscale consumers.

Justice Harry Blackmun in Roe v. Wade celebrated abortion as an answer to overpopulation. But Americans seem to realize, uneasily, that every abortion extinguishes a human life. Science tells us that the mother and unborn child have different DNA: aborting a fetus, unlike clipping a fingernail, is morally problematic.

Abortion will still operate as a litmus test in the contests for the presidential nominations of both parties, though perhaps less among Republicans, who seemed willing to nominate the pro-choice Rudy Giuliani in 2008 until they rejected him for other reasons. But all of the many Republican likely candidates this year seem to be pro-life. And it's unthinkable that Democrats will nominate anyone who is not pro-choice.

In 2012, 43 percent of Mitt Romney voters were white evangelical Protestants -- a group with a large overlap of pro-lifers -- and 43 percent of President Obama voters were abortion absolutists -- people who told exit pollsters that abortion should always be legal. Neither 2016 nominee will want to antagonize these base voters. But both will want to expand on that base by adding voters who are more equivocal on the issue.

Republicans know from bitter experience that mainstream media will try to depict them as supporters of criminalizing abortion -- a minority position. But Democrats have learned -- or should have -- from the experience of Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado this year, that abortion absolutism hurts them as well.

Udall opposed any limits on abortion and devoted half his TV ads to the "war on women." Pro-Udall ads charged that if Republican Cory Gardner were elected, contraceptives would become illegal or scarce -- despite the fact that the Supreme Court guaranteed otherwise 49 years ago. It got to the point that a debate moderator said Udall was becoming known as "Mark Uterus."

Gardner won, partly because the pro-Udall claims weren't credible, but probably more important, because abortion absolutism struck many voters, notably Hispanics, as irrelevant to their concerns.

In short, abortion is unlikely to be a differentiating issue in the primaries, and the positions of the two parties' core groups -- recriminalization and abortion absolutism -- are unpopular with the great mass of general election voters. So I'm guessing that you're not going to hear much about abortion in the 2016 campaign.

I'll have more to say about other cultural issues -- same-sex marriage, no-fault divorce, "climate change," gun control, criminal sentencing -- in a later column.