The Obama/Biden ticket got an unexpected gift today from a solid member of the GOP pro-life establishment. Instead of discussing the topics discussed at the town hall meeting that Romney and Ryan did at St. Anselm’s College, we were talking about Todd Akin’s inexplicable description of the most sensitive of issues: abortion in the case of rape. But the Dems are now trying to turn this short-term victory into one that is much longer term by bringing abortion to the forefront of the campaign. They have already released a new campaign ad with this goal in mind.
But this is a classic example of why it is important to be careful what you wish for. It is relatively easy to point to the fact that Obama is not moderately pro-choice and if abortion becomes a center of this debate, that will become clear. But isn’t the received wisdom that this won’t hurt him? Aren’t those who Obama needs to turn out all solidly in the pro-choice camp? Hardly. For starters, a record low number of people now describe themselves as pro-choice–a definite concern for those who wish to woo “undecideds” with a pro-choice focus. We also shouldn’t forget that about 30% (and growing) of all Democrats now describe themselves as pro-life and that Obama needs Catholics, in a particular, to break for him in a way similar to 2008. It is also worth mentioning that a focus on abortion choice puts pressure on Catholics that were ready to vote against a Ryan-plan that is at variance with Catholic Social Doctrine.
Despite the fact that some believe there is war on women being waged by the GOP, Obama continues to struggle with previously-supportive female voters. Another demographic Obama won big in 2008 was the youth vote–but in part because of their poor job prospects, he is struggling with them as well. How will a focus on abortion rights work out with these groups? Sign point to “badly.” Only 37% of Millennials consider abortion to be morally acceptable, and even the president of NARAL will step down this year because she understands new leadership is needed in light of the fact that young people are more energetically pro-life than pro-choice. And despite their being told at every turn that abortion rights are necessary for them to flourish, women are less likely to describe abortion as morally acceptable than are men.
Contrary to what was true in past elections, a focus on abortion choice actually hurts Obama with the very voters he needs to turn out the most: undecideds, women, Catholics and young people. If the Dems are not careful, they could win this short term battle and lose the war. The tide has turned, and a passionate defense of the lives of our prenatal children can no longer be understood as existing primarily in old guard GOP pro-lifers like Akin. Understanding a focus on abortion rights as radically betraying the values of nonviolence and protection of vulnerable populations is now mainstream and continues to grow, and grow energetically, in places where the old wisdom might not expect it.
In addition to the campaign ads, the Democrat convention is also now apparently “all in” with a focus on abortion rights. Today we learned that “Democrats said that they will feature Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parent Action Fund [and] Nancy Keenan, president of the NARAL” at the convention to send the message “Romney, Ryan, Akin and the GOP want to take women back to the dark ages.” For all the reasons mentioned above, this is a fundamentally wrong-headed strategy. Obama and the Dems had a narrow opening to try to paint Paul Ryan and perhaps a few others as being in the same category as Akin, but the overreach that is going “all in” on abortion rights is going to cost them precious votes in critical demographics.