Before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last week abortion did not even register as a significant issue among voters. That’s probably because it seemed like settled law; not something you really had to think about. In fact, the level of public support for Roe remaining the law of the land had been remarkably consistent over five decades, at around two out of three Americans.
That should add up to a boon for Democrats in the coming elections. But will it? It might not because the question is one of intensity. Most of us are pro-choice, but we support some restrictions. The Bill Clinton formulation that abortion should be, “safe, legal and rare” hits the sweet spot of public opinion pretty well. But the new mantra of abortion rights activists, which will likely be conflated with the Democrats whether they want it to be or not, is, “free abortion on demand without apologies.” That’s a level of intensity that will turn off most pro-choice voters who have some reservations about it.
The other issue of intensity revolves around just how important this is to voters compared to other issues. If inflation continues to rage it seems unlikely that abortion will overtake it as a top issue. Inflation impacts everyone while most of us won’t consider getting an abortion or knowingly know anyone who would, even if we want others to have that option. Abortion is a choice I want available to others, but not something that impacts my daily life.
In fact, I can name at least ten issues that are more important to me than abortion. First, there are five big picture international issues. Climate change is the most important issue to me because it effects everything. Next comes right-wing populism because that looks like a worldwide resurgence of fascism. Then there’s the challenge of China because that’s a nation that appears about to supplant the U.S. as the dominant world power, and they will not be spreading liberal democracy. The war in Ukraine takes the next spot because the naked aggression of Vladimir Putin must know some bounds. Then there’s migration — partially linked to climate change — because that’s the unsettling engine that drives fascism.
Then I’ve got five — what I hope are — temporary national issues. I would lead with the ongoing effort to undermine our elections, then inflation, then crime, especially gun violence, then the intolerance of the new left (wokism, if you will) and finally the need to build a stronger social safety net in things like health care, chid care, expansion of Medicare and the like.
Don’t get me wrong. I am pro-choice. I think the Court was wrong to overturn Roe. I hope that this will help Democrats. I think this is a very serious and important issue. But I’m also hard pressed to put abortion above any of those 10 issues in terms of importance to me, or for that matter, for the country or for the world as a whole. I understand why pro- and anti-abortion activists are passionate about their issue, but I just don’t happen to share their passion and I suspect that will be the case with most Americans, even pro-choice voters.
We’re getting strong statements from Democratic candidates and office holders and breathless reporting and commentary on this from my usual liberal news sources — the New York Times, NPR and PBS. To liberal elites the Roe decision is eclipsing everything else. But I don’t think that’s the way the bulk of American voters will look at it. If Democrats take their cue from their elites — both on the “no apologies” messaging and on the relative importance of this issue vis a vis others — they’ll likely take an even bigger pounding than had been expected before last week.
If I were a Democratic strategist I’d stick to “safe, legal and rare” and I’d emphasize the fight against inflation and crime with abortion an add-on issue.
And on another matter… at last weekend’s state Democratic convention Mandela Barnes and Sarah Godlewski were tied in a straw poll of delegates for their preference for a candidate to take on Sen. Ron Johnson. Each received about a third of the votes. Billionaire’s son Alex Lasry got only 15%.
Want to read more curiously conservative views from a liberal? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.