Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Pro-Lifers, It Turns Out, Were a Big Part of Obama’s Winning Coalition

I was recently telling a Democratic friend about Obama’s abortion balancing act. One day he repeals the Mexico City “gag rule” delighting pro-choice activists. The next week he seems intent on making it up to pro-life voters, announcing that one priority of a new faith-based council will be reducing the need for abortion.
My friend interrupted and said, “why should we care about appeasing the pro-lifers? We won.”
The first reason, I said, is because Obama promised.
But then I thought about the word “we.” Obviously my friend was making a realpolitick assumption that his side, the Obama coalition, was almost entirely pro-choice. But is that really true?
No. Pro-lifers made up a meaningful percentage of Obama’s winning coalition. Professor John Green of University of Akron, czar of all religion-and-politics polling, reports that based on not-yet-released survey conducted in December, about a quarter of Obama’s vote came from pro-lifers, defined as people “wanting serious restrictions on abortion, but not necessarily a full ban on abortions.” What’s more, Green will report, about one third of young voters who went for Obama are pro-life.
These findings comport with Beliefnet’s own less scientific user survey.
Now obviously, pro-choicers made up an even bigger portion of his coalition. But pro-lifers comprised a surprisingly big minority.
As a point of reference, this would mean that pro-lifers made up a bigger percentage of Obama’s vote than….union members, white Catholics, Jews, gays, Latinos or 18-21 year olds.
As a good Democrat, you’d never think of being so cavalier with those groups, why would you blow off the pro-lifers?
The strong showing comes in part because Obama improved with Latinos, evangelicals, Catholics, and regular church-goers. Obama doesn’t have to act on abortion right away — most of Obama’s religious voters care more about the economy than abortion — but he also shouldn’t think that he can abandon his abortion reduction promises without political consequences.
UPDATE: For those curious about the methodology, Prof. Green described to me how the term “pro-lifer” was defined. The following question was asked:


“Now I would like you to think about the issue of abortion. Which of
these statements comes closest to your views on abortion…
(1) It should be legal and solely up to a woman to decide, OR
(2) It should be legal in a wide variety of circumstances, OR
(3) It should be legal in only a few circumstances such as to
save the life of the mother, OR
(4) It should not be legal at all”

Those who answered #3 or #4 were counted as “pro-life.” Seems like a very solid methodology.

Comments read comments(11)
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posted February 11, 2009 at 1:35 pm

Good post, but I’d take your counter-argument to your friend one step further. How does reducing the need for abortion constitute “appeasing” the pro-lifers?
Pro-choicers consistently say they’re not pro-abortion, but pro-choice. Very well: wouldn’t mitigating the pressures that lead to abortion be a way of expanding an individual’s degree of choice? Or is that not the point after all?

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posted February 11, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Steven the statement, “One day he repeals the Mexico City “gag rule” delighting pro-choice activists” and “because Obama promised” seem to be typical of many pro-lifers.
I assume you are assuming that repealing the Mexico City “gag rule” will result in taxpayer money paying for abortions, which is a violation of an existing law.
After reading about the situation in the countries that receive the money, I learned that the places offering family planning and health care were few and often spread far apart. Not providing money to the organizations could result in more abortions and inadequate health care for extremely poor women. Saying it “delights” pro-choice activists, indicates that individuals that are pro-choice want more abortion. Someone advocating more abortions would be an extremely small fraction of total pro-choice individuals.
I believe abortions are wrong, but I think anyone that voted for McCain under the belief that he would make any changes in abortions laws were fooling themselves. You wrote good articles about the ever-changing verbiage McCain was using about abortion and that if he were serious he would want a federal law.
How many broken Republican Presidential candidates breaking promises to end abortion will it take to see the “reality” of the situation? Reagan, Bush 2, and McCain all flip-flopped on the abortion to make promises to get votes. I read several pro-lifers on blogs specifically say they were no longer fooled by the broken Republican promises and Obama has a more Christian on other issues than the Republican give the money to the people that need it the least.
The second major issue. I have noted that many pro-lifers have attacked Obama’s agenda to reduce abortions. For example, “Abortion reduction” gets some ink” by Mollie points to another site that says the availability of birth control increases the number of abortions. The only solution she will accept is making abortion illegal, which is not what Obama promised.
Obama specifically stated he would not make abortions illegal. The attacks by pro-life individuals that Obama broke a promise are not valid.
Pro-life individuals need to deal with “reality” that abortions will not be made illegal, especially since 60% plus of Americans believe it should be legal. They need to stop finding fault with every initiative to reduce abortion and find solutions besides making abortion illegal.
I have not seen any Republicans offering bills to make abortion illegal. Congress writes the laws. Contact Congress if changes are desired.

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Gerard Nadal

posted February 11, 2009 at 3:52 pm

“Pro-life individuals need to deal with “reality” that abortions will not be made illegal.”
The same used to be said about abolitionists and slavery. The opponents of that American Institution opposed it on religious/moral grounds. It too enjoyed Constitutional and Supreme Court protection. In the end, justice prevailed. I have no doubt that the same will happen here as well.
It sounds to me like John Green is pulling a statistical sleight of hand.
“about a quarter of Obama’s vote came from pro-lifers, defined as people ‘wanting serious restrictions on abortion, but not necessarily a full ban on abortions.'”
From one who is very involved in the pro-life movement, that is NOT the definition of pro-life!
People who support limitations on the right to choose may be squeemish about late term abortions, and self-identifying as pro-life is a great way to assuage a troubled conscience.
Looking deeper into the internals of the poll, did Professor Green tease out those who oppose abortions at every stage? If not, this is push-polling at its slimiest.

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posted February 12, 2009 at 10:42 am

I participated in the Green survey. As I recall, he asked simply whether I believe abortion should be legal in all cases, some cases, or not at all.
I want to point out again that there is a difference between Obama’s pledge to reduce the need for abortion and the language of “abortion reduction.” A reduce-the-need strategy focuses on the economic and educational programs (read: comprehensive sexuality education) that will reduce the incidence of unplanned/unwanted pregnancies. “Abortion reduction” treads into murkier waters, such as parental notification laws and other restrictions that make abortion services more difficult to obtain.
Obama’s pledge was to reduce the need for abortion. He did not commit to abortion reduction.

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Jill Stanek

posted February 12, 2009 at 11:14 am

Agree that Green’s definition of “pro-life” is false. If Tim remembered correctly, that he was asked whether abortion should be legal in all cases, some cases, or not at all, then the respondents should be divided pro-abortion, pro-choice, and pro-life. Hence, Obama got votes from people ambivalent on abortion, not pro-lifers.
The moderate unease with abortion was evidenced in the Gallup poll on Obama’s 1st 7 actions as president ( His Mexico City Policy ranked lowest with just 35% approval. 67% of Independents disapproved.
It would be nice if Obama’s takeaway from polls such as Green’s would be to lighten up on his anti-life position and plans.
But he hasn’t. He did overturn MCP; he did add “family planning” to faith-based initiatives; meaning more $$ will go to the abortion industry; he has promised to provide taxpayer funding of human embryo experimentation; he has promised to sign FOCA “first thing,” and he would sign (not veto, as President Bush did/threatened) appropriations bills deleting important pro-life riders like the Hyde Amendment.
And Obama did add the executive director of EMILY’s List, a former board member of both Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List, and NARAL’s former legal director to top staff positions, just to name a few. He has surrounded himself with pro-abortion (not pro-choice) ideologues and abortion big business tycoons.
The major problem is, Steve, 2 world views stand in opposition on the question of how to lower abortion. The twain will never meet. (And if abortion is such a great constitutional right, then why does the other side say they want to lower it?)

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posted February 12, 2009 at 11:45 am

“Why does the other side say they want to lower it?” Because hardly anyone who is pro-choice is “pro-abortion” (no one I know, certainly). That is an inflammatory, ideologically loaded term that identifies maybe a handful of people (and even that is a guess; I can’t say for sure that absolutely no one is “pro-abortion,” though someone surely is). If I might speak as a member of the “other side,” we do believe in a woman’s right to choose, but at the same time, we hope that fewer women will have to face that moral choice. Another term I take exception to is “anti-life.” Who, pray tell, is anti-life? I read a beautiful pro-choice statement once — “It is precisely because life is sacred that we believe it should not be created carelessly.”

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posted February 12, 2009 at 4:39 pm

Interesting data. Am curious how it compares with previous elections. How many of these abortion restrictionists voted for Kerry, Gore, Clinton, etc.?

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posted February 12, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Regarding the “beautiful” pro-abortion statment about the sacredness of life: … “we believe it (life) should not be created carelessly:” If we truly believe life is sacred, how do we support its destruction – particularly when the life is innocent?

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posted February 12, 2009 at 5:52 pm

The abortion debate has been unproductive for all involved. President Obama wants to be part of a new discussion about how to reduce the perceived need for abortions. What is the problem with focusing on plans most people would consider reasonable? In my view, this would include encouraging chastity outside of marriage (except for gay people, who can’t get married in most states), comprehensive sex education, lifting shame from single women who do get pregnant, and creating a culture that greets any new life with joy.
Perhaps the most effective way to reduce abortions would be to relieve economic pressure on pregnant women.

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Your Name

posted February 12, 2009 at 6:29 pm

Dennis, it depends on the circumstances. As Amy says, relieving economic pressure on poor women can help reduce abortion. Family planning services and comprehensive sexuality education to prevent unwanted pregnancies are other strategies to ensure that life is not created carelessly. When a woman does face the moral decision of abortion, the decision is hers to make — not yours, not mine, not the state’s.

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