Conventional wisdom strikes out

Posted: Jul 04, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week's news contained a couple of nuggets that stand conventional wisdom on its head.

Among the things everybody knows is that Democrats, being the party of the little people, raise money in small contributions, whereas Republicans, being the party of fat cats, raise funds in huge basketfuls from wealthy corporate types. At least, that's the way the world is usually portrayed by the "Today Show," The New York Times and the Democratic Party.

So it's of more than passing interest to see the results of a study conducted by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The study, which tracked 1.6 million contributions to House and Senate races, the two political parties and political action committees during the 2002 election season, found that Republicans raised far more from small donors than did the Democrats. As Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times reports, "Democrats raised as much or more than Republicans in 2002 only among the largest donors. Democrats attracted 92 percent of the money from the 23 donors who contributed at least $1 million. ... By contrast, Republicans dominated among smaller and mid-sized donors. The GOP garnered 64 percent of the total contributions from those who gave less than $200 and 61 percent from those who donated between $200 and $999."

This is interesting not only because it shatters the popular misconception about the two parties but also for the light it sheds on the upcoming election year. The recently enacted McCain-Feingold campaign finance law bans soft money -- precisely the large contributions that have been so useful to Democrats. Sixty percent of the Democratic National Committee's money came from soft money, whereas the Republican National Committee raised only 40 percent of its funds from soft money.

I've always believed that McCain Feingold is bad public policy and a clear violation of the First Amendment. But how must the liberal reformers feel, who believed so fervently that the new law would increase the influence of Democrats and diminish that of Republicans?

Another factoid that is taken for granted in news rooms across America is that women tend to be pro-abortion. Whenever the question arises as to a particular candidate's appeal to women, some journalist or pundit is bound to observe that the candidate's anti-abortion stand hurts him or her with women, or vice versa. Now the question as to whether a candidate's abortion stance helps or hurts at election time is actually a somewhat subtle one. It depends upon how many voters say that their vote is determined by the abortion issue, and of those, how many vote pro or con. Most of the surveys I've seen suggest that antiabortion voters are more likely to punish a candidate at the polls than pro-abortion voters, so an antiabortion position is less likely to hurt a candidate than a pro-abortion position. But it also varies from state to state and race to race.

Still, the assumption that most women are "pro-choice" is completely false, and new data make this abundantly clear. A survey by the New York-based Center for the Advancement of Women, headed by former Planned Parenthood president Faye Wattleton, found that 51 percent of those questioned believed that abortion should be outlawed or limited to extreme cases such as rape, incest or life of the mother. Further, asked to rank 12 priorities for women, keeping abortion legal came in second to last, just above increasing the number of girls participating in organized sports. (Seventy-four percent rated getting more time off to care for family as important, 72 percent ranked reducing drug and alcohol abuse a high priority, and 71 percent listed reducing sexual harassment.)

I've never believed in the existence of "women's issues" and have marveled at the feminists' insistence on the point. Perhaps these latest data (and you have to hand it to Faye Wattleton for not attempting to suppress the results of this survey when the results proved disappointing to her point of view) will provoke some to reconsider the way they cast the abortion issue. Women seem to be deciding it as a moral question, not a "women's issue."

These stories were not front-page news. But those who report on public policy should nevertheless be on notice that some of their treasured assumptions are false.