Learning from the 2012 Elections
By David N. O’Steen, Ph.D., Executive Director,
National Right to Life
Much has been written about the effect of abortion on the 2012 presidential race and the apparent sudden shift in polls from the pro-life plurality (or majority, which we have seen in recent years) to a plurality or bare majority self identifying as pro-choice.
What has not been reported is that 1) of those who voted on the basis of abortion, the pro-life vote for pro-life candidates essentially equaled the pro-abortion vote for pro-abortion candidates; and 2) basic attitudes on abortion itself have not changed. A plurality, or even majority, of the public continues to oppose the vast majority of abortions that are actually performed.
While much has also been written about the “women’s vote,” race and ethnicity was a much greater determinant of how people voted than gender.
The CNN exit poll found that Mitt Romney won 59% of the white vote while Obama won 93% of the black vote and 73% of the Hispanic vote. Significantly, Romney won 56% of white women and 51% of young white voters, 18-29.
Church attendance was also a predictor of how one voted. Fifty nine percent of those who attend church at least once a week voted for Romney while 62% of those who never attend church voted for Obama.
Pew Research reported that Obama won the overall Catholic vote 50% to 48%, but Romney won white Catholics 59% to 40%. This was an increase of 7% for the Republican candidate over 2008 when John McCain won 52% of white Catholics. This increase may be due to the Obama Administration’s mandate that some Catholic and other religious institutions provide insurance coverage for items they find morally objectionable, as well as the very visible pro-abortion campaign for Obama.
On the abortion issue both sides were very active. However the pro-life side was vastly outspent and the pro-abortion side, with substantial help from most of the media, was very successful in defining the abortion issue in terms most disadvantageous to pro-life candidates. They were also aided by unfortunate and politically disastrous comments by some candidates who oppose abortion.
A post-election poll conducted by the Polling Company for National Right to Life found that 25% said that abortion affected their vote and that they voted for candidates who oppose abortion while 24% said abortion affected their vote and they voted for candidates who favored abortion. So pro-life PACs, including the National Right to Life PAC and the National Right to Life Victory Fund, did deliver the pro-life vote.
In fact 27% recalled hearing or seeing something or receiving something in the mail from National Right to Life. This represented the largest such recall ever. And National Right to Life made one of the largest pro-life efforts ever. The NRL PAC mailed almost ten million pieces of mail to identified pro-lifers and the NRL Victory Fund and the NRL PAC collectively ran 41,513 radio spots, with 5,319 of them in Spanish on Spanish language stations. An additional 14,760 educational spots on the issue were run by NRL.
What changed was that the pro-abortion side greatly increased their vote. In 2010 22% said abortion affected their vote and voted pro-life while only 8% said abortion affected their vote and voted pro-abortion. In 2008 the numbers were essentially the same: 25% said their vote was affected by abortion and voted pro-life while only 9% said abortion affected their vote and voted pro-abortion.
So this year while there was a pro-life vote that was essentially equal to the pro-abortion vote, the pro-life advantage which in the past has consistently been delivered to pro-life candidates was nullified and no net advantage accrued to either side.
The Polling Company poll found the same result among the 4% who said abortion was the most important issue affecting their vote. These voters divided evenly between Romney and Obama.
Losing the net gain pro-life candidates have had in the past on this issue obviously hurt Romney, even if there was no net pro-abortion advantage for Obama. How did the pro-abortion side accomplish this? By being able to redefine in the public arena what pro-life and pro-choice mean and by being able to have their message amplified by vastly greater resources and a media eager to carry their message.
Early on, the Obama campaign and their allies at Planned Parenthood, EMILY’s List, and NARAL sought to define the abortion issue as a “war on women” and link it to contraception and family planning. This effort was assisted by the media furor that surrounded the campaign to defund Planned Parenthood in Congress.
Whether or not the “war on women” theme alone would have produced the results desired by Obama and Planned Parenthood became a moot question when Todd Aiken, the Missouri Republican Senate candidate, made his comments on rape and abortion. From that point on for the media the abortion issue was ONLY about rape.
Pro-life candidates were microscopically examined on the question of rape and abortion. Mitt Romney’s pro-life position which contained an exception for rape was at times misrepresented and Paul Ryan’s position contained no rape exception.
The media coverage of the Republican convention was greatly dominated by the media’s response to Todd Aiken’s comments and the Republican Party platform was sometimes misrepresented as calling for a ban on all abortions with no exception for rape. In fact the platform is silent on the question of exceptions and states general principles in favor of life, while calling for the reversal of Roe. Such reversal would allow the state and federal legislative branches to legislate on abortion within their respective jurisdictions.
Obama and other pro-abortion candidates had the luxury of having their position subjected to essentially no media scrutiny at all. Obama was not asked to explain his opposition to the bill to prohibit abortion for sex selection, or his position on late abortion after 20 weeks when the baby can feel pain, or his support for public funding of abortion or even his well documented opposition to protecting babies born alive during an abortion. All of which are positions at odds with the views of the vast majority of voters.
Why does this matter? Because an overwhelming majority believes abortion should be allowed for rape and if that is the issue that defines what it means to be pro-choice or pro-life, then a majority will side with pro-choice label.
The Polling Company poll found that only 21% would allow abortion at most for life of mother cases. Another poll released October 24 by Grey Matter Research found that only 18% would prohibit all abortions and 71% supported allowing abortion in cases of rape.
Such figures are not new. Support for allowing abortion in cases of rape has been overwhelming throughout the years of the abortion debate.
The success of the pro-abortion side in temporarily redefining what it means to be pro-life or pro-choice has been reflected in numerous recent polls.
While a May 2012 Gallup poll found that 50% identified themselves as pro-life and only 41% identified themselves as pro-choice, the Polling Company post election poll found 51% now identifying as pro-choice and 43% as pro-life. The Resurgent America post election poll found 49% identifying as pro-choice and 43% as pro-life.
Does this mean that there has been a fundamental shift in how Americans view abortion? No! It means that at the critical time of the election the pro-abortion side and their media allies succeeded in focusing the abortion issue on the single most difficult aspect of it for the pro-life side with enough voters to wipe out the usual pro-life advantage.
The Polling Company found that:
• 9% would prohibit all abortions
• 12% would allow abortion only to save the life of the mother
• 28% would allow abortion only for life of mother, rape and incest
• 16% would allow abortion for any reason but only up to 3 months
• 12% would allow abortion for any reason but only up to 6 months
• 13% would allow abortion for any reason at any time
• 11% don’t know or refused.
Grouping the first three categories as pro-life and the next three as pro-choice you get 49% pro-life and 41% pro-choice with only 25% actually agreeing with what is essentially the current legal status of abortion. This is in the same poll in which respondents self identified as 51% pro-choice and 43% pro-life.
Significantly, 14% of those who identified themselves as pro-choice said they would allow abortion only in cases of the life of the mother, rape, or incest. At the same time a full 45% of those who identified themselves as pro-life said they would allow abortion in cases of rape and incest.
Clearly the pro-life movement needs this category of people who oppose over 90% of all abortions to be identifying and voting for pro-life candidates and not for candidates with the unlimited abortion position held by Obama and his allies.
Similarly, while Grey Matter Research found that 71% would allow abortion for rape, they also found that only 40% would allow abortion because “the mother just doesn’t want to have the child,” the true pro-choice position, or because “raising the child would be a financial hardship.” Only 33% would allow abortion because “the mother wants a child of a different gender.”
A determined, one-sided media together with a sequence of most
unfortunate statements by candidates created a "perfect storm" that
played into and greatly augmented the pro-abortion narrative in this
election. This effectively neutralized the usual pro-life advantage.
The pro-life movement and pro-life candidates cannot ever let this
happen again. We must see that the issue before the public is how
and why abortion is actually used in this country, and, of course, the
baby who dies. If this is done, then with a majority opposed to
abortion on demand pro-life political victories will once again be
While the outcome of 2012 is bitterly disappointing, we can learn from
it and emerge stronger, more focused and more effective. Fortunately
the actual political balance of power remains much the same and there
are many opportunities for educative and life saving legislation at
the state level, and the U.S. House remains in pro-life hands.
Most important, recent reports indicate that the number of abortions
continues to drop and lives are being saved. That is what this
struggle is really about, why we in the pro-life movement do what we
do and why we will keep doing it--only better.
For their lives,
Jacki Ragan, Director
State Organization Development & Conventions Department
National Right to Life
512 10th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004-1401
"Life offers no guarantees, but abortion offers no chances."