Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Inconvenient Abortion Issue That Keeps Dogging Bob McDonnell

Today's Washington Post reports an interesting difference of opinion on Creigh Deeds' strategy of highlighting Bob McDonnell's opposition to abortion. The Deeds campaign is attempting to call voters' attention to McDonnell's staunch social conservativism. McDonnell, a Pat Robertson ally, has been trying to downplay his positions on abortion and single sex marriage in an attempt to rebrand himself as a moderate. Although Rosalind Helderman and Sandhya Somashekhar, the two Post reporters, question the hazards of bringing up the divisive issue of abortion, some progressives disagree with their assertion that it is a risky strategy.

Ben Tribbett declares flat out that it's time to take on McDonnell on this issue. Ben also points out the obvious, that it's far more risky to fail to motivate your base. And August is exactly the time to do so because that's when your base is actually the only one listening. You want to fire up the activists or they won't be there to knock on doors, or phonebank for you in September and October when everybody else finally begins to pay attention.

Meanwhile, Shaun Kenney, former communications director for the RPV, leading conservative blogger, and very smart political strategist, is claiming, over at Bearing Drift, that Creigh Deeds embracing the issue of abortion is a strategy that will fail. He says:
Convincing women that McDonnell is somehow out of the mainstream on abortion is like one horse bucking a national freight train. Gallup polls are showing Americans to be majority pro-life for the first time in the history of modern polling.
Actually, one Gallup poll did find, back in May, that more than half of Americans self-identified as pro-life. But even if 51 percent termed themselves pro-life, that still means 49 percent do not consider themselves pro-life. Given that there is always a statistical margin of error, this means that nationally the country is divided on the issue, not pro-life by a solid majority. But reading that particular poll was tricky at best, as the New York Times pointed out right after it was released:
In advance of President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame last weekend, Gallup released a poll showing that for the “first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question in 1995.” This was based on a question that asked respondents if they consider themselves “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” The poll found 51 percent saying they were “pro-life,” up 7 points from a year ago to a new high.

That is a significant change.

But a close look at polls that ask a similar question reveals that responses to this question move around a bit. CNN asked the same question in April, and found the “pro-choice” response ahead by 4 points, but the “pro-life” response was ahead by 5 points a couple of years ago. Fox News polls have found the “pro-life” response ahead, “pro-choice” ahead, and the two tied in various polls throughout the years.
In addition to that ambivalence, the public actually expresses quite a bit of doubt on this divisive issue. In that same Gallup Poll, here's the actual breakdown of the way the respondents, who called themselves pro-life by 51 percent, actually answered specific questions on when abortion should be available: 22 percent said it should always be legal, 23 percent said it should never be legal, and 53 percent said it should be legal in some cases.

That means the most adamant positions were at the margins of both left and right, with the vast majority favoring neither a total ban on nor unlimited access to abortion. Most people seem to be in the middle, understanding that while abortion is tragic, it sometimes is the best of some really terrible choices a woman might have to make. One thing that's certain is that at less than a quarter favoring a total ban on abortion, the true hard right anti-abortion stand of Bob McDonnell, who opposes it even in the case of rape or incest, is definitely not the mainstream position that conservatives like Kenney or Chris Beer, whom he quotes, believe it to be.

And, in fairness, neither is the abortion on demand view a mainstream one. The majority of Americans are troubled by abortion and have a nuanced opinion of it. That, by the way, reflects my own view (in the interest of full disclosure I have to say that although I am basically pro-choice, it is not without great ambivalence).

Having said that, the Washington Post article, although it considers Deeds' strategy to bring the abortion debate into the election a risky one, admits that in Virginia, it could make sense. (The emphasis is mine)
The early statewide pitch by Deeds is a bold gamble that the demographics and politics of Virginia have shifted so quickly and decisively that raising a divisive issue such as abortion, which Republicans attempted to use to their advantage for much of this decade, is now favorable to Democrats. Although advocates on both sides of the issue rank Virginia as one of the more restrictive states on abortion, a Washington Post poll in September found that 60 percent of Virginia voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a number that has not changed significantly in recent years.
The key take home point here is that Republicans indeed used the abortion issue throughout most of the 1990s and earlier, when they thought it gave them the winning advantage. As their most socially conservative candidates began losing elections in the Northern Virginia suburbs, they began downplaying the issue and even objecting when Democrats brought it up. They had no such shyness, though, about using the abortion issue when the state truly was more conservative on the issue.

I also disagree with the Post's assessment that it is risky at all to bring it up. Although the two reporters point out that Mark Warner and Tim Kaine did not make abortion a center piece of their campaigns and David Poisson was quoted in the article as believing it should not be a key issue, I'm not sure that view is the best for this year's campaign, even if it was effective in 2005 and 2001. Here's why.

When Mark Warner ran against Mark Earley, Earley did not try to present himself as moderate on social issues. Further, even though the issue wasn't at the center of the campaign, most voters knew that Warner was the pro-choice candidate, so he never exactly tried to hide his position. Also, back then, fewer Virginians were pro-choice.

Then, when Kaine ran, he actually wasn't pro-choice. At best, he simply believed that he shouldn't impose his personal beliefs on the rest of the state. That was also his position on the death penalty, which he personally opposes but still carries out. He took a principled and consistent position, whether you agree with him or not. He did not impose his personal and religious beliefs on social issues on those who disagreed with him. But he certainly wasn't an impassioned defender of abortion rights either.

By the way, if we're talking about injecting social issues into a campaign, somebody should point out that Jerry Kilgore most certainly attempted to make hay out of Kaine's opposition to the death penalty, although it was never in danger of being repealed. So, it's obvious that Republicans will bring up all sorts of social issues if they sense it will motivate their base, scare the voters, or otherwise work to their advantage.

As for Poisson, he ran for his seat against Dick Black who, as the Post admitted, was "largely defined by his opposition to abortion." In other words, Poisson did not need to bring it up. Dick Black was notorious for his extremism and certainly wasn't trying to present himself as a moderate. There was no question of Black attempting to rebrand himself in that race. So comparing Poisson's winning strategy to this year's gubernatorial race is pretty much an apples and oranges exercise.

In fact, the real issue isn't abortion, it's who is the real Bob McDonnell.

He is now running from his own position, one which he espoused just earlier this year. And Virginia voters deserve to know where he really stands on every issues, including abortion.
Before moderates and progressives in Northern Virginia, the Richmond suburbs, and parts of Virginia Beach vote for him, they deserve to hear where he really stands, not just on abortion but on every issue that affects them.

Make no mistake, I actually agree with Kenney and other Republicans that abortion will not, and should not be the major issue. It would be a mistake to base a whole campaign on one issue, especially now when most people are worried about jobs, the economy, health care, and transportation. Both candidates need to present credible campaign platforms built around solutions to these problems and their plans for the environment, climate change, and energy needs. But abortion is certainly a legitimate issue to talk about.

And so is the candidates' stands on the availability of contraceptives, which to me is even more important. There are some on the right, most notably Ken Cuccinelli, who support bans even on birth control and morning after emergency pills, given to women after rape. Despite the claim that these are abortifacients, the science contradicts that. What those pills do is prevent a fertilized egg from lodging in the womb. They prevent pregnancy. They do not kill fetuses.

The truth is there are other issues that concern the majority of Virginians more than this one does. But as long as some citizens will be affected by abortion and birth control laws, and as long as they are concerned about this, it is a valid issue to be discussed. And voters deserve to know where both candidates stand. That's more than just a campaign strategy. Telling them where you stand is the right thing to do.


nova_middle_man said...

Overall a very good post. You really are a good writer. Its a shame you are such a darn liberal :-p.

I think alot of the stuff you said about McDonnell applies to Deeds as well though. Deeds has benn all over the place on guns, taxes, the gay issue, and spending just to name four issues off the top of my head.

Its truely ironic that the last week he was in bath county and then he immeidately comes to Northern Virginia and starts harping on the abortion issue.

I'll close on agreement again

The truth is there are other issues that concern the majority of Virginians more than this one does... voters deserve to know where both candidates stand. That's more than just a campaign strategy. Telling them where you stand is the right thing to do.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Thanks, Nova.

I actually agree with you that after August, this will become a minor issue, except with the base and on the blogs.

BTW, I forgive you for calling me a left wing loon on NLS a few weeks ago :)

WestEndVoter said...

"What those pills do is prevent a fertilized egg from lodging in the womb. They prevent pregnancy. They do not kill fetuses."

Well...if I illegally removed the airbags out of someone's car for profit, then the driver died in a head on collision, my act of taking out the airbags would have not killed the driver. Yet I would possibly be tried for murder or involuntary manslaughter.

Arguably, the act of making the uterus less receptive to a living embryo causes the death of that embryo. But I am just putting the argument out there, not necessarily agreeing with it.

Even though I generally support Deeds in this election, I for one would like to see both Deeds and McDonnell's abortion positions spelled out. Is Deeds really "100% choice" as the ADC's head claims in the most recent Alexandria newsletter? Or would he place reasonable restrictions on the late term abortion procedures that make both of us (and most physicians) squeamish? Is McDonnell really so pro-life that he would even restrict contraception? Let us know.

But anyway, great post. I am looking forward to reading more from you on the issue (including the post on "medically necessary abortions" you mentioned earlier.

Freedom Fighter said...

I don't see this as the downfall of Bob in fact I think it's great. I am pro-life and most of Virginia is too. So...if your pro-choice why aren't you so pro-choice with medical care? How about this you can go get your abortions with whatever doctor you like and I will pick and choose my doctor too.

Shaun Kenney said...

Well done, AIAW. Nice to see the blogosphere going back and forth with well written opinions on both sides. Almost brings me back to when the blogosphere in Virginia was a kinder and gentler place... :)

Good stuff. Two weeks from now, we'll be discussing something different (education, I'll bet).

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Shaun, thanks for coming by. Yeah, I miss the kinder, gentler days too.

And we found something to agree on. In two weeks, if both sides are smart, that's exactly what we will be discussing. That and jobs and roads :)

Anonymous said...

Wilder played pro-choice to his advantage vs. Coleman in 1989

Per NYT article 11/8/89

"Mr. Wilder campaigned for the right to abortion more aggressively than any candidate to date, while Mr. Coleman, a 47-year-old former Virginia attorney general, centered his campaign on attacks on the Democrat's integrity and promises to hold down taxes. Mr. Coleman opposes most abortions.

Nearly one out of three voters leaving the polls today said abortion was the issue that mattered most, more than education, crime, taxes or any other issue, according to the Times/ CBS News Poll."

Coleman scared the daylights out of me and many other women I talked to. Good move for Creigh

J.R.Hoeft said...

As always, Karen, I appreciate your intellectual honesty. However, I can't help but think this strategy is divisive and irrelevant, especially given Deeds reluctance to talk about other national issues that matter: card check, health care, coal and energy, etc.

Deeds knows exactly what he's doing, as the most recent comment suggests. He's trying to campaign on an issue that the Virginia governor will have very little control over, while he neglects our most pressing issues.

Perhaps that's why he came to his senses today and cancelled his anti-abortion event.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

First of all thank you, JR. Your kind words mean a lot.

You might be right. An anonymous commenter noted that Wilder used the abortion issue to his advantage. But I think a lot has changed since 1989.

Most notably, with a Democratic administration in the White House, a lot of pro choice voters are not as nervous about losing reproductive freedom as they might have been even a year ago. And even during the Bush administration, when the Supreme Court hung in the balance, many people did not think they would lose this right because it has been legal for so long. Many women have never known a time when they couldn't get an abortion or didn't have access to birth control.

That's why relying too heavily on this issue backfired in the 2007 state Senate race in the 37th District. If you remember, the Oleszek campaign spent too much time hammering away on this issue in an attempt to show Cuccinelli as being out of step with his district.

And I think the basic claim was true. On that one issue, his district, the 37th, is more liberal than he is. Even he has admitted that.

But most people were more concerned with the transportation issue and especially with the abuser fees, which drew an uproar of protest. At the time, Oleszek's campaign seemed to be talking past voters' real concerns.

Ironically, back then, with the Bush administration, the nominations of Roberts and Alito and the very real righward drift of the Supreme Court, there actually were more reasons for abortion rights activists to feel threatened than there are today.

What makes this issue less effective at the state level now is that Democrats are in control of the White House and both houses of Congress. Because of that, I suspect that Bob McDonnell's opinions on abortion will seem a lot less relevant to this year's election.

The only reason to raise it is to motivate the base and to plant questions about McDonnell in voters' minds. It's an attempt to dispute his claim that he is a moderate.

Further, people generally like those whom they perceive as being most like them. They also vote for those they perceive as sharing their basic values. So, it's also an attempt by Deeds to connect to pro choice voters on an issue that is important to them.

All that said, I suspect that by September, this issue is not what either side will be talking about. If I were running the campaigns, it certainly wouldn't be what I would be talking about then.

One other note: I don't think EFCA is particularly relevant to a state election either because it's a federal issue that doesn't affect Virginia's right to work law. I see that as the McDonnell camp's wedge issue to do the same to Creigh Deeds - to draw a wedge between those voters to whom that particular issue matters.

Again, by September, that's not what they will be talking about either. They will and should be discussing job growth, education, fixing transportation, and energy and the environment. Those are the issue that a governor can actual do something about.

PWConservative said...

So people will be motivated to vote for deeds because more babies will die in his administration?
How about He address everyday issues?