GOP debates stance on abortion as it looks to expand its voting base

In their period of post-election soul-searching, Republicans are enmeshed in a debate about abortion — and whether to debate the subject at all.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spoke for a number of people in his party when he said the GOP should “leave [abortion] alone.”

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“As far as young women are concerned, absolutely — I don’t think anybody like me — I can state my position on abortion, but other than that, leave the issue alone,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

His comments came as Republicans debate how to expand their appeal to minorities and women — two voting blocs President Obama won handily — in the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat on Election Day.

As part of its wooing of women, some GOP strategists and mainstream pundits warn that the party can only stay competitive if it adapts on abortion and moves toward the middle, which could include changing the party platform (which includes no exceptions for abortion), signaling an openness to judicial nominees who support abortion rights and including more abortion-rights-supporting Republicans at major GOP events. 

But those advocating for change are making a number of mistakes in reading both the nation’s and women’s views on abortion. And that misunderstanding is leading to a prescription that could be disastrous for the GOP.

First, both the country and women are divided on abortion. According to a Gallup poll conducted in May, 51 percent believe abortion is “morally wrong,” while only 38 percent view it as “morally acceptable.” But that’s not a slam-dunk case against abortion rights; many people distinguish between morality and legality. In other words, one can think abortion is morally wrong but support its legality.

But even on that score, the nation is divided. According to Gallup, 25 percent say abortion should be legal under any circumstance, while 20 percent say it should be illegal under all circumstances. The rest think it should only be legal in a few choice circumstances, which has been the position of every GOP presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan.

In fact, women seemed to be split between Romney and President Obama’s views on abortion. A CBS survey from the summer found that 48 percent of women held a generally conservative view of abortion: that it should either be illegal in all cases, or legal only to save a woman’s life and in cases of rape or incest. In other words, 48 percent held Romney’s view.

Meanwhile, 49 percent of women said it should be permitted in either “all cases” or “with greater restrictions,” which essentially conforms to the “safe, legal and rare” stance that Bill Clinton and many Democrats have adopted.

Thus, we clearly see the first mistake made by those urging the GOP to abandon or alter its message on abortion — a fundamental misreading of an electorate that appears to be divided. 

The second misunderstanding on abortion rights centers around the idea that it’s a litmus test for voters. These critics maintain that unless the GOP becomes more open to abortion rights, large swaths of voters will automatically rule the party out.

But polls suggest abortion isn’t such a test. According to the CBS poll, nearly 60 percent say they’d vote for a candidate with whom they disagreed on abortion. Only 34 percent said they couldn’t back a candidate they disagreed with on abortion. 

The majority of women agreed: Fifty-three percent said they could support a candidate with whom they disagreed on abortion, while only 38 percent viewed it as a litmus test. 

Third, pundits seem to be misinterpreting the effect of the comments on abortion and rape made by Senate candidates Todd Akin (in Missouri) and Richard Mourdock (in Indiana). 

There were concerns their controversial remarks would extend to the rest of the party, but there’s no evidence that any candidate, outside of Akin and Mourdock themselves, was damaged.

Polling is limited on that question, but according to a CBS poll, women viewed Akin as unrepresentative of the GOP. 

Only 13 percent said Akin’s comments, on women not becoming pregnant from “legitimate rape” because their bodies would prevent that outcome, reflected the views of most Republicans. Even Democrats distinguished between Akin and the GOP. Just 24 percent of Democrats thought Akin’s comments were reflective of the Republican Party’s mindset. 

Fourth, contrary to the popular narrative, the GOP doesn’t have a problem with women — it has a problem with single women, and Republicans are unlikely to win their vote even with a shift on abortion. 

According to exit polls, Romney beat Obama among married women, 53 percent to 46. Four years earlier, Obama nipped McCain by 4 percentage points with the group. In 2004, George W. Bush won married women by 11 points, while in 2000, he and Al Gore tied with the group. Conclusion? Married women often veer between the Democratic and Republican parties, but as of this presidential election, firmly chose the Republican presidential nominee.

But the story is different with single women.

In the 2012 presidential race, single women preferred Obama, 67 percent to 31, thus contributing to Obama’s big 11-point win, overall, among women. Single women are a core Democratic constituency, as pollster Gary Langer has noted, and it’s unlikely that moderating on abortion would change that. 

Finally, moderating on abortion would risk alienating evangelicals, one of the most important GOP constituencies and one that made up 26 percent of all voters on Nov. 6. It’s quite possible that for every voter the GOP gained from moderating on abortion, many more would choose to back a third-party candidate or stay home altogether.

To be sure, abortion is a tricky issue for Republicans. But it’s also a tricky issue for Democrats, and just because it’s portrayed as simply a GOP problem doesn’t change the fact that Democrats face electoral resistance on it as well.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.  Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com