2010 seems likely to mark the end of abortion’s prominence as an influential issue in Republican primary elections. While GOP voters once dutifully lined up behind the most pro-life candidates, that just isn’t the case these days. I’m not saying that pro-life sentiment has waned. It hasn’t. The percentage of Republicans saying that abortion should be illegal in all or most instances is little changed over the past decade. But I do see fewer pro-life voters letting their views on abortion issues influence or control their candidate choices in primaries.
There is a long list of very plausible explanations for this shift, the most convincing being that the recession and economic issues have simply sucked all the oxygen out of the room, leaving little opportunity for abortion and other second-tier issues to breathe. I see evidence of this frequently in polls that reveal pro-life and Christian-right voters as some of the most passionate advocates for jobs as a top priority of government.
I think it’s also worth contemplating the impact of the Catholic Church’s imbroglio over pedophile priests. A year ago, it looked to me like the church was turning up the heat on the abortion issue, offering a fresh new source of energy for a waning movement. But that now seems like a false start that won’t have a chance to run its course because of other controversies that demand clerical attention and that underline moral leadership on this issue.
There is also the possibility that the electorate has exhausted all its energy for the abortion issue. Despite the right’s steadfast devotion for much more than a decade, there have been too few policy victories. And even when there are wins, other issues trump them. The Arizona Legislature and governor became the first to outlaw some abortions under ObamaCare’s state exchange programs. You’ll hear a little about that. But by a 10-to-1 margin, I’ll wager, commentary on Arizona’s immigration policies will dominate the abortion ban. Americans lose interest when their teams don’t win, even for beloved franchises. Small, incremental victories on partial-birth abortion have ostensibly not been compelling enough to keep the flame ablaze.
In one clear sense, blame for the decline of abortion’s relevance can be laid at the feet of lying politicians who have blithely plied a pro-life agenda during the primary and then set that platform aside for convenience when campaigning against Democrats and legislating after being elected. Through a decade-long process of trial-and-error, pro-life Republicans have come to believe that they are just being used by pro-life candidates. So they are letting other issues become more influential over their votes.
On one level, voters who are pro-life take those views for ethical reasons, according to how they define right and wrong. As ethical voters, I think they are particularly offended by candidates they see as phonies, who now claim to be pro-life in a primary but are exposed as having been pro-choice at some earlier point in their political career. In a circumstance like this, the ethical pro-life voter may choose the honest pro-choice candidate, who agrees with the voter on other issues, while rejecting the Johnny-come-lately alleged pro-lifer who is clearly bogus.
Some interesting Republican primary skirmishes are occurring over abortion in California, Iowa, Kentucky and Nevada. But the best right-to-life race may suddenly be on the Democrat side, in Bart Stupak’s Michigan district. Who would have seen that coming?
David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.