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Don't Read Virginia Result As Pro-Choice: It's Anti-Extreme

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli gestures during an Oct. 24 debate in Blacksburg, Va.
Steve Helber
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli gestures during an Oct. 24 debate in Blacksburg, Va.

The outcome in Virginia's governor's race this week seemed to illustrate anew the Democratic Party's grip on the women's vote, and the power of the abortion issue.

Even some Republicans argued that social conservative Ken Cuccinelli's defeat at the hands of Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who won women by a 9-point margin, was another sign that the GOP's anti-abortion stance would continue to doom the party at the polls.

This was the sentiment expressed in a post-election column on Virginia's popular conservative blog Bearingdrift.com, by an activist using the pseudonym Alexis Rose Bank:

"The Republican Party needs a new strategy on abortion....abortion opponents have in no unclear terms been the single most significant cause of Republican losses in recent years..."

The writer may be partly right, but the analysis was flawed in one very basic way: Republicans aren't losing because women reject their anti-abortion stance. Polls consistently show that women, like the rest of the country, are divided on the issue.

They're losing because women, and other voters, perceive that Republicans are more extreme on the issue of abortion.

"The one thing that we always feel has to be put out there is that women, as a group, are not fundamentally pro-choice," says Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for People & the Press. "There is a remarkably small gender gap on the pro-choice issue.

"There is, however, a bigger gender gap on the politics of the issue than on abortion attitudes," Dimock says.

In that sense, the Virginia results do serve up an important abortion lesson for Republicans. It can be summarized in two words: "transvaginal ultrasound."

Position Vs. Extreme Position

On the same day Cuccinelli was losing purple Virginia, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who opposes abortion, was winning re-election in deep blue New Jersey.

Here's how Christie has characterized his position on abortion: "I am pro-life," he said on NBC's Meet the Press in 2011. "I believe in exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. That's my position, take it or leave it."

That's what John Sides characterizes as a "garden variety" Republican position on abortion, one that doesn't advocate overturning Roe v. Wade or move otherwise to the extreme of the issue.

Christie's position puts him "in the majority of opinion" on abortion, says Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, adding that Cuccinelli's position — he opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest — "was a minority position."

That brings us to transvaginal ultrasounds. Cuccinelli, as the state's attorney general, supported a bill that would have made the invasive procedure mandatory for women considering undergoing an abortion in Virginia. That was ample fodder for McAuliffe's well-financed advertising campaign.

"Both sides are trying to find dimensions on this issue that they can get leverage out of," Sides says. "On the left, it can be vaginal ultrasounds; on the right, it could be 'partial birth' abortion.

"When a legal right to abortion is being seen as going too far, or when an attempt to restrict rights to abortion goes too far, that's where you'll see backlash," he says.

Research suggests that being associated with an extreme position on abortion, not being against abortion, is what hurts candidates like Cuccinelli — and Republicans Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Aiken in Missouri, both of whom saw their U.S. Senate hopes go up in flames in 2012 after extreme comments on pregnancy and abortion.

Numbers, Not Anecdotes

An analysis by Sides and Lynn Vavreck at UCLA found little voter movement on the abortion issue in the 2012 presidential race, even when controversy was bubbling around Mourdock, Aiken and others.

"Conservative attitudes on abortion among Republican-leaning women shored up their support for Romney," Sides and Vavreck wrote this week in an analysis for Bloomberg. "The abortion views of Democratic-leaning women shored up their support for Obama in roughly equal measure."

Both Sides and Dimock, of Pew, reiterate that while abortion is a more personal issue for many women, there is little gender gap on attitudes.

"Women are a little more likely than men to take the pro-choice position, but 7 points more likely to say Democrats represented their views," Dimock says, "and they are 10 points more likely than men to say it's an important issue to them."

Pew's polling shows that there is a perception among Americans — even moderate Republicans — that Democrats are closer to the people on the issue, with 55 percent saying the GOP is more extreme.

That comes with a caution, for both parties.

"Abortion itself is not always a black and white issue to a lot of Americans," Dimock says, noting that 57 percent of women Pew polled last election season said they supported legal abortion in "most cases." And 49 percent of Americans in an August Pew poll said that having an abortion was "morally wrong."

Republicans who oppose abortion can win, and have won. The problems arise when specific candidates promote positions that are beyond what mainstream voters — women and men — can accept.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.