A cardinal rule of politics is when you have a political advantage, exploit it. Drive a wedge in the opposing camp by forcing them to defend the indefensible, and then seize on their unpopularity to suppress their turnout and increase your own. Because when the electorate is on your side, you would be foolish to do anything less.
Yet pro-life Republicans have managed to turn this axiom on its side, transforming a relatively unpopular position into a political strength and tapping voters’ — particularly religious conservative voters’ — implacable opposition to female autonomy to dominate the modern-day political landscape. Democrats might control Washington. Barely. But they are losing throughout the country — and are struggling even on their home turfs.
In mostly Blue Virginia, former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is clinging to a lead against a political neophyte who recently admitted he’s “staunchly and unabashedly pro-life.” In deep-Blue California, a pro-life Republican could defeat Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomCalifornia to launch program tracking violent deaths in LGBTQ+ community California governor signs legislation targeting Amazon warehouse speed quotas Newsom signs privacy laws for abortion providers and patients MORE — and by extension, end Democratic U.S. Senate control if Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFederal watchdog calls on Congress, Energy Dept. to overhaul nuclear waste storage process Senate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam Republicans caught in California's recall trap MORE (D-Calif.) cannot serve out her term.
Meanwhile, the pro-life movement is enjoying its most dominant conservative Supreme Court since the 1930s. It could be 10-15 years or longer before Democrats have any hope of reclaiming a majority — and only if they run the table on the next 3-4 presidential elections.
Since 1975, Gallup has conducted 63 surveys that have asked, “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstance, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?” At no time has banning abortion rights exceeded 23 percent support.
In fact, only twice have more people preferred a complete ban vs. full legality: the very first survey (April 1975: 22 percent ban vs. 21 percent legal), and the first survey after President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTop nuclear policy appointee removed from Pentagon post: report Prosecutors face legal challenges over obstruction charge in Capitol riot cases Biden makes early gains eroding Trump's environmental legacy MORE’s first election (May 2009: 23 percent ban vs. 22 percent legal). The former can be attributed to a largely conservative backlash to Roe v. Wade, which had occurred only two years earlier. The latter can be attributed to a largely conservative backlash to Obama’s historic victory, which fomented Republican ire and galvanized their base, resulting less than two years later in one of the biggest counter-wave elections in a century.
But Democrats have been unable to consistently convert this advantage at the ballot box. On many issues they argue over how much they want something tangible (like government funding) or the extent to which they demand systemic change (such as policies advancing gender and racial justice). Nuance rarely wins elections. Compelling narratives with heroes and villains often do.
Republicans understand this. They incite voter disgust with warnings of rampant “partial-birth” abortions—as if doctors are murdering healthy babies the moment they’re born. They have convinced millions of Americans that one-cell zygotes are more sacred than sentient, 700-trillion-cell humans. Despite being outnumbered, the pro-life movement regularly puts Democrats on the defensive. There are the occasional unforced errors, such as when a male Senate candidate claims to be an expert on rape, abortion, and how women’s bodies actually work. But on the whole, the pro-life contingent controls the narrative.
One reason is because in presidential election years, pro-life single-issue voters generally outnumber pro-choice single-issue voters. Even small strides for the pro-choice movement could have huge electoral ramifications. For example, Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreTrump's election fraud claims pose risks for GOP in midterms Don't 'misunderestimate' George W. Bush Why the pro-choice movement must go on the offensive MORE would have won the presidency in 2000 if merely a few hundred pro-choice George W. Bush voters in Florida had instead voted to protect women’s bodily autonomy.
It’s also fair to suggest Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE would have prevailed in 2016 if choice had been as singularly important to pro-choice voters as anti-choice was to pro-life voters. A 2014 state-by-state Pew survey revealed that far more respondents believed abortion should be “legal in all/most cases” than “illegal in all/most cases.” Based on these results, had the election been a referendum only on pro-choice rights, Clinton would have soundly defeated Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJulian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy Overnight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Five takeaways from Arizona's audit results MORE with 368 electoral votes, carrying seemingly out-of-reach Red states like Alaska (63 percent pro-choice), Iowa (52 percent), Montana (56 percent), and Oklahoma (51 percent).
This doesn’t mean Democrats can win in every pro-choice Red state. But if a new poll showed a majority of New Yorkers were pro-life, you’d better believe the GOP would figure out a winning strategy. Frightening voters into abandoning their beliefs in exchange for an easily consumable identity has been the hallmark of modern-day conservatives’ success.
Democrats have had a statistically reliable and sustained advantage on this intensely personal and political issue for decades. The ingredients for taking the fight to Republicans are clear and ever-present. With Roe v. Wade on the brink, they have everything to lose — and paradoxically, they have nothing to lose by making every future election a referendum on whether the government should control human bodies.
B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.