The Abortion Weathervane
Mitt Romney isn’t an extremist. He’s a symptom of your failure to make reproductive health a voting issue.
Look back at previous elections, and you’ll see the pattern. Several years ago, the National Right to Life Committee published a time line of exit polls from 1988 to 2002. For each election, the document calculated the “pro-life advantage”—the net gain for pro-life politicians (and the net loss for pro-choice politicians) based on their abortion positions. Year after year, more pro-lifers than pro-choicers made their voting decisions based on abortion. But one year is curiously absent from the time line: 1990. That was the year after the Supreme Court, in 1989, came close to overturning Roe v. Wade.
What happened in 1989? I’ve told the full story elsewhere, but here’s a summary. The court’s ruling scared pro-choice voters. Many more of them decided to make abortion a voting issue. They elected a black man governor of Virginia, which at that time was not just the cradle of the Confederacy but a reliably conservative state. That was nearly 20 years before the election of President Obama. A year later, in 1990 exit polls, the number of pro-choicers who made their voting decisions based on abortion exceeded the number of pro-lifers who did so. About 40 percent of people who voted on the issue said abortion should be legal in all cases. Thirty-two percent said it should be illegal in all cases, and the rest (which couldn’t be defined from the exit poll question) said it should be legal in some cases.
After the 1989 and 1990 elections, Republican politicians and party leaders turned tail. President George H.W. Bush dropped his annual plea to overturn Roe. When he was asked whether, in the case of his granddaughter theoretically getting pregnant, “the decision would be hers,” Bush meekly answered: “Who else’s could it be?” Vice President Dan Quayle gave a similar answer: “I respect my daughter’s decision. Others that have made a decision like that, I wish they hadn’t, but I’m not going to challenge their decision.”
Quayle was thought to be a devout pro-lifer. If the political beatings of 1989 and 1990 made him curl up in a fetal position, imagine what a pro-choice storm in 2012 would do to a weathervane like Romney.
It wouldn’t be hard to create such a storm. You don’t have to change anyone’s mind about abortion. You just have to get people who are already pro-choice to vote on the issue. If you look back at presidential exit polls from 1988 to 2000 (see page 29 of this compilation from the American Enterprise Institute), you’ll see a clear pattern. As the percentage of people who voted based on abortion goes up—7 to 9 to 12 to 14 to 33—the pro-life advantage goes down: 32 to 26 to 19 to 17 to 9. Ultimately, in the 1990 off-year election, the pro-life advantage became a pro-choice advantage. And when the advantage shifts, politicians follow.
When historians look back at this period, they’ll be amazed that we dawdled on climate change and nearly defaulted on our debt. But they’ll be equally amazed that the Republican Party, with impunity, waged an all-out war on Planned Parenthood, an organization dedicated to contraception and women’s health care. The GOP’s extremism on reproductive issues is the result of 20 years of not paying a price for it. And the insanity will continue until you make it stop.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.