In recent weeks, pollsters and pundits have been wrestling with a seeming contradiction at the heart of the country's abortion debate. On the one hand, the United States is a pro-choice nation, with consistent majorities of Americans voicing the belief for two decades that abortion should be legal in some or all cases. On the other, the United States is also witnessing the rapid proliferation of draconian curbs on reproductive rights that in many states could soon make abortion access a thing of the past.
As it turns out, that contradiction isn't much of a paradox after all. As a recent survey by the Pew Research Center revealed, views on abortion vary widely by religion and region of the country. For example, 75 percent of New Englanders believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases; only 20 percent are opposed. But in the South, opponents outnumber supporters by 52 to 40 percent. Still, with the passage of harsh anti-abortion laws in traditional (and trending) blue states including Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia, geographic and religious disparities don't sufficiently explain the seeming momentum of the anti-abortion movement. To fully comprehend the changing landscape, you need to understand both voters' intensity and when they actually go to the ballot box
As it has since the mid-1990's, the Washington Post-ABC News poll found that a steady advantage for pro-choice supporters, "with 55 percent saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 41 percent say it should be illegal in most or all cases." But that number obscures the huge gap in intensity between pro-choice and anti-abortion voters. A survey by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found that only 26 percent of respondents described abortion as a high or very high priority for Congress and state legislatures, with 72 percent brushing the issue off a medium or low priority. NBC explained the yawning chasm in intensity between the two sides:
There is a striking divide when it comes to intensity. Among those who believe abortion legislation should be a high priority for state and federal lawmakers, a combined 70 percent say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
And among those who think it should be a low priority, 65 percent say it should be legal either always or most of the time.
Writing in the Daily Beast, Michelle Goldberg quantified the ferocity of social conservatives' anti-abortion views that make them such a force in off-year election and Republican primaries:
According to a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll taken last year, 63 percent of Republicans believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Among those who identify with the Tea Party movement, the number is 88 percent. These are the party's activists, the people who turn out for crucial primary elections--and, in many cases, mount primary challenges of their own. They will can't [sic] simply be ignored.
To put it another way, anti-abortion voters simply care more about curtailing abortion rights than supporters do about preserving them. And in non-presidential election years, that difference in motivation can make all the difference.
In large part, voter turnout data tell the tale. As the numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey reveals (see chart above), since presidential election years produce a roughly 15 point increase in voter turnout compared to midterm Congressional elections. In 2008 and 2012, Democrat Barack Obama benefitted from turnout of 63.6 and 61.8 percent, respectively. Those years included strong showings among younger, black and Hispanic voters. But Obama's coalition let him down in the 2010 midterms, when the 46.7 percent turnout was three points lower than four years earlier. As the Guardian summed up the Democratic debacle:
1. The 2008 electorate was 74% white, plus 13% black and 9% Latino. The 2010 numbers were 78, 10 and 8. So it was a considerably whiter electorate.
2. In 2008, 18-to-29-year-olds made up 18% and those 65-plus made up 16%. Young people actually outvoted old people. This year, the young cohort was down to 11%, and the seniors were up to a whopping 23% of the electorate. That's a 24-point flip.
3. The liberal-moderate-conservative numbers in 2008 were 22%, 44% and 34%. Those numbers for yesterday were 20%, 39% and 41%. A big conservative jump, but in all likelihood because liberals didn't vote in big numbers.
As Larry Sabato and his University of Virginia co-authors summed up "the presidency's political price" for Barack Obama, Democrats lost 63 House seats, six Senators, 8 governorships and 10 state legislatures.
The much older electorate in 2010 didn't just defeat Democratic candidates like Ted Strickland in Ohio and Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania. Voters over 65 gave their votes to Republicans by a whopping 21 point margin (59 to 38 percent). And, Pew reported, the elderly are much less pro-choice than the population as a whole:
Among adults under age 30, 57% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, the same as among adults in their 30s and 40s (57%) and similar to those in their 50s and early 60s (55%).
Americans 65 and older are somewhat less supportive of legal abortion. Equal portions say abortion should be legal in all or most cases (45%) and illegal in all or most cases (45%).
That pattern certainly held in Florida, where the GOP's Rick Scott eked out a one-point win in 2010 despite that fact that Obama defeated both John McCain and Mitt Romney there. As the Sun Sentinel explained the turnabout:
The Republican tsunami in Tuesday's election was intensified by a low turnout among the Democratic strongholds of South Florida.
It was the worst turnout for a gubernatorial election in at least 12 years in both Broward and Palm Beach counties. Only one other county in the state posted a worse turnout than Broward, where just under 40 percent of registered voters went to the polls. Turnout in Palm Beach was 46 percent, but that's still lower than the rest of Florida.
In traditionally Democratic Pennsylvania, gerrymandering and abysmal turnout in 2010 gave Republicans control of the governor's mansion and the legislature. Turnout was "in the 46 to 47 percent range," compared to the presidential election of 2008, which brought 70 percent of registered voters to the polls.
That midterm intensity disadvantage for Democrats and abortion rights supporters has been even more pronounced in recent off-year elections. In New Jersey in 2009, Republican Chris Christie defeated unpopular incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine in an election in which "voter turnout was a record low for a New Jersey governor's race." That same November, Tea Party radical Bob McDonnell defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds in Virginia. As the Washington Post reported:
With turnout in a governor's race slumping below 40 percent for the first time in at least 40 years, Deeds fell well short of the margins Obama, Kaine and Warner amassed among black voters, young people and Northern Virginians.
In both 2008 and 2012, three million people cast ballots in blue state Wisconsin as turnout reached 69.2 and 70.1 percent, respectively. Barack Obama carried the state each time. But in 2010, turnout dropped back to 49.7 percent and 2.17 million votes, enabling Republican anti-abortion hardliner Scott Walker to become governor. Walker survived his controversial recall election in June 2012, again in large part because Democrats did not get their voters to the polls:
While there was a heavy turnout for a special election, the final total of just over 2.5 million votes fell well short of the nearly 3 million votes cast in the 2008 presidential election. And Republicans appear to have done a better job of getting their voters to the polls. Turnout for the recall election was 91 percent of 2008 turnout in heavily Republican Waukesha County, the largest GOP county in the state, but only 83 percent of 2008 turnout in Milwaukee County, the largest Democratic county in the state.
The same pattern was evident in the exit poll results. The 2012 recall electorate was noticeably older, whiter, more conservative and more Republican than the 2008 electorate.
That was not the case when President Barack Obama won reelection in 2012. But the damage from 2009 and 2010 was lasting, as his party only picked up 8 seats in the House, two in the Senate and two state legislatures. Governors Walker (R-WI), Kasich (R-OH), McDonnell (R-VA), Corbett (R-PA) and Scott (R-FL) backed by their Republican-controlled state house went on to implement the most draconian abortion restrictions since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. That did not happen because abortion opponents constitute a majority in those states, but because they cared more intensely. Especially when it mattered most. Apparently for them, every day is a battle in their war on abortion rights.