A little-noticed Fox News Channel poll released last week revealed that nearly half of voters — 45 percent — need to know a candidate’s position on abortion before deciding their vote.
The spin put on the poll numbers by the article was that the abortion issue “doesn’t seem to draw as much attention as many think it does,” according to John Gorman, Chairman of Opinion Dynamics.
It seems the pundits are preparing the way for a Hillary-Rudy presidential race where the life issues don’t matter anymore. Yesterday, for example, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), gleefully announced the “end of the Reagan Era.”
But prominent religious leaders, Catholic and Evangelical, think otherwise.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum told me that “abortion continues to be an issue that shakes the conscience of our society. For those who vote on the issue equivocation is not acceptable.”
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Civil and Human Rights told me:
The poll results demonstrate that abortion is anything but a side issue. The American people may be conflicted on the subject — they want abortion to be legal but limited (limited in both time and purpose) — but it is precisely their own uneasiness with this issue that drives them to demand that candidates for public office square with them about their own positions. In other words, the public is looking for clarity on this issue from their would-be leaders.
In sum, abortion may not be highly valued when measured against other issues, such as the war in Iraq, but it is the qualifying issue. For nearly half the electorate, how a candidate thinks about abortion is what qualifies him or her for their support.
The poll showed that 56 percent of self-identified pro-lifers qualify candidates this way, as do 41 percent of pro-choice voters.
Pro-life Democrat Mark Stricherz, author of the recent Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party (Encounter Books, 2007), puts it this way: “Our media elites say that Americans don’t care about abortion. But as this poll shows, Americans do care. In fact, enough of them care so much about it that they cost Al Gore and John Kerry the presidency, as the Democratic Party’s own pollsters — such as Stanley Greenberg — confirm.”
The level of concern about abortion and other life issues is the legacy of the religious conservative entry into American politics that began with the election of Reagan in 1980. This concern has been thrown into temporary disarray by the lack of a galvanizing pro-life presidential candidate.
“The Fox News poll should not be reassuring to a pro-choice Republican presidential candidate,” says Arthur Brooks, professor of Public Administration at Syracuse University. Brooks is a recently arrived Catholic commentator on the cultural scene. He is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and is author of Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism (Basic Books, 2006).
Brooks agrees that abortion is the qualifying “make-or-break voting issue” for nearly 50 million Americans. “While only 5 percent say it is the single most important issue in deciding their vote, it is one of a small constellation of issues (like views on Iraq) that either rule in or rule out a candidate. More people may say health care is a more important issue to them than abortion. However, there’s no way a specific position on health policy is something that 45 percent of the population would need to know before voting.”
One Evangelical leader I talked to thinks the poll numbers express the view of younger voters who see the relationship of the abortion issue to other important policy issues. Ned Ryun, son of former Congressman Jim Ryun (R-KS), is a 30-something Evangelical who directs the Generation Joshua Program that organizes college students to participate in grassroots campaigning:
I think in some ways the poll reflects the growing pro-life views of the younger generation, and I also think it reflects voters knowing that the life issue is such a fundamental one that it influences so many others. If nearly half the voters are saying they want to know a candidate’s stance on life before they vote, the astute candidate should pay attention to this poll.
Does this mean the Hillary-Rudy presidential race becomes a reality? What it does mean is this: In spite of the fact that both are “pro-choice,” voters will be parsing their actual positions very carefully.
Hillary has to be careful not to alienate her pro-choice support by embedding a faux “pro-life” plank into her social justice agenda. Rudy has to convince pro-lifers that his promise to deliver judges and justices like Roberts and Alito is more than a campaign strategy.
Failure to convince their core constituencies on the abortion issue may result in what Shakespeare once wrote — “A plague on both your houses.”