This was supposed to be an election in which the economy dominated the debate, social issues took a backseat and the culture wars were put on hold.
Yet in the homestretch of the 2012 campaign, abortion politics is coloring races up and down the ticket.
And it’s by design.
Democrats have gone all in for abortion rights, with none of the hedging or defensiveness they’ve shown in recent years — a subtle but striking repositioning with political consequences that extend far beyond Nov. 6.
The evidence of it is impossible to miss. The airwaves are choked with messaging about women’s reproductive health. Abortion rights advocates had prime speaking roles at the Democratic convention. Contraception advocate Sandra Fluke is a prominent campaign trail surrogate. Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood, recently introduced President Barack Obama at a Virginia campaign rally.
While Democrats have long supported a woman’s right to choose, this year’s full-throated embrace of abortion rights — from the president down to the most obscure House candidate — marks a historic departure that now places the party as firmly and unyieldingly in support of abortion rights as the GOP is in opposition.
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The long-term implications of that shift worry some Democrats — who long shied away from being the party of “abortion on demand,” in the phrase of their GOP opponents, to avoid alienating voters who favor some restrictions or find it morally troubling. But with the White House and Senate hanging in the balance, Obama and the party have replaced that political caution with a new political calculus — that it’s the GOP that looks extreme and out of touch, particularly to women voters who will help decide the election.
Democrats point to controversial statements of GOP Senate candidates such as Richard Mourdock of Indiana and Todd Akin of Missouri, and a Republican legislative agenda — both in statehouses and in Congress — as the forces driving the heightened focus on abortion rights. They’re especially incensed by the GOP’s fight against the Obama administration’s contraception rule and the drive to defund Planned Parenthood — putting new issues on the table that, in their view, shouldn’t be controversial.
Advocates on both sides of the issue agree that a post-Roe v. Wade threshold has been crossed in this election, even if they disagree on the forces that have reshaped the debate or its implications.
“Absolutely there has been an embracing of pro-choice values to a degree we’ve never seen before,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who had a prime speaking role at the Democratic National Convention. “I’ve always felt that the issue of protecting a woman’s right to choose is a winning issue. Women care about it, and they will decide this election.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that supports anti-abortion candidates, views the Democratic strategy as “a big gamble.”
“The threshold that has been crossed is that every bit of energy has been placed behind this,” she said. “Strategy, messaging and tactics are all aligned with that full embrace. It’s a gift for us. It’s 100 percent clarity on where they stand.”
“So what happened? The church and the Republicans have put contraception on the table. … No one ever thought we’d be having this discussion in the 21st century,” said Democratic Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro. “People may try to present this as an abortion debate. It really isn’t. We’re in a different debate.”
Even anti-abortion Democrats are saying they’re not uncomfortable with Obama’s embrace of abortion rights without any of the usual qualifiers.
“I think we’ve been consistent, and if there has been any change, it’s been because the other side has become so extreme,” said Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who has worked with DeLauro — a pro-abortion rights Democrat — on legislation that tried to bridge the two sides by funding initiatives to reduce the number of abortions.
In the 2008 campaign, Obama spoke the language that many Democrats were using at the time to acknowledge the concerns of voters who have moral and ethical concerns. Yes, Obama said, he would always fight for a woman’s right to choose — but the better first step is to prevent the need for abortions in the first place.
“I think anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue I think is not paying attention. So that would be point No. 1. But point No. 2, I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe v. Wade,” Obama said at the Saddleback forum with the Rev. Rick Warren in August 2008. “So for me, the goal right now should be — and this is where I think we can find common ground … is: How do we reduce the number of abortions?”
Now, the second part of the equation has dropped away. Obama just talks about the “right to choose” and warns that Mitt Romney would take it away. It’s all about “Washington politicians who want to … control health care choices that women should be making for themselves,” as he said in his convention speech.
Another factor that’s driving the Democrats’ new aggressiveness is the wave of anti-abortion legislation passed since 2010 — when Republicans were swept into power in statehouses across the nation — which has sounded the alarms on the left.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights research group, 92 state laws that restrict abortions in some way were passed in 2011 — by far the highest number since the group began tracking the laws in 1985. And this year, there were 40 state abortion restrictions that became law — the second-highest number on record.
At the national level, Democrats insist, Republicans no longer call for simple restrictions on abortions anymore, like parental notification laws. Instead, they’re fighting over women’s access to contraception — by opposing the Obama administration’s requirement for most employers to cover birth control without co-pays — and targeting Planned Parenthood.
“All of it has created an environment in which the Democrats feel emboldened to be more straightforward about where we are,” said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. Before now, she said, “I think there’s been a certain paranoia that we’re too far to the left on this issue.”
Even today, some Democrats acknowledge that the pendulum could easily swing back on such an emotional and sensitive issue and leave Democrats looking like the ones who are out of step, potentially limiting the party’s ability to reach the kind of middle-of-the-road voters that delivered its House and Senate majorities.
The danger, according to Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, is if the Democrats “learn the wrong lesson” from an Obama victory and decide there’s no longer any need to reach out to voters who want to keep abortion legal but still have moral reservations.
“If the Democrats learn the lesson that going all-in on abortion was what won them the election, that could be a lesson that could have some long-term consequences with these folks,” she said.
Dannenfelser said the party should be worried. “[Democrats] will feel the loss of voters who thought there was room for them in that party. They’ll feel it most acutely over the long term. A great swath of them will hold their nose and vote Republican.”
The Democrats’ past reluctance to move in lockstep with abortion-rights groups was grounded in polling that underscored the need for a cautious approach.
Since Gallup began polling the issue in 1975, a slight majority has consistently said that abortion should be legal, but only under certain circumstances.
And according to an August polling summary by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a slight majority of Americans continue to want abortion to be legal in all or most cases — 20 percent want it to be legal all the time, 33 percent want it legal in most cases — while the rest want to outlaw abortion in most or all cases.
Still, in Gallup’s most recent survey, 50 percent of adults identified themselves “pro-life” while 41 percent called themselves “pro-choice.” That’s the lowest percentage of “pro-choice” Americans ever recorded by Gallup — even though people’s views on the legality of abortion didn’t actually change that much.
Among Republicans, there’s a greater degree of unanimity — 78 percent call themselves “pro-life” compared with 22 percent who say they are “pro-choice.” But among Democrats, the gap is considerably tighter — just 58 percent identify themselves “pro-choice” while 34 percent call themselves “pro-life.”
If that one-third figure is accurate, it raises the prospect of a party that could be alienating a significant portion of voters with its unequivocal embrace of abortion rights.
In the short term, however, there’s considerable promise in the Democratic approach.
One notable change that appears to have taken place since 2008, when Obama focused on a common-ground approach, is a sharp rise in the percentage of Democratic women who say they would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion.
When Gallup pollsters asked that question in 2008 and this year, there wasn’t a big increase overall. But a breakdown of the groups within those polls, generated for POLITICO, shows that Democratic women — and independent women who lean Democratic — are voting more strongly on the abortion issue this year. In 2008, 12 percent said they’d only vote for a candidate who shares their abortion views. This year, that figure jumped to 22 percent. None of the other groups showed a significant change.
For now, Democrats seem to have decided that they need such a huge chunk of their base to turn out that they’re willing to push the limits of their pro-abortion-rights stance — and worry about the ripple effects with centrist voters on another day.
That bet just might pay off if these Democrats put Obama back into the White House. “You really do have a pretty large group of Democratic women who are supercharged on this issue,” said Gallup pollster Lydia Saad.
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