Elections: Voter Support and Partisans' (Mis)perceptions of Presidential Candidates' Abortion Views in 2000

Article excerpt

In August of 2000, a self-avowed fundamentalist Christian who had publicly pledged to "do everything in my power to restrict abortion" earned the Republican Presidential nomination in Philadelphia. (1) In an apparent attempt to diffuse this controversial issue, throughout the nomination and presidential campaign Governor George W. Bush obscured his abortion views and avoided discussing the topic. His official position is that abortion should be outlawed except in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.

In a debate with Senator John McCain on Larry King Live, Governor Bush simultaneously maintained that he completely endorsed and agreed with the Republican Party platform (which calls for a constitutional amendment barring all abortions) and he supported the above-noted exceptions. Senator McCain apparently found it so frustrating to attempt to force Governor Bush to clarify these mutually exclusive positions that he eventually quit discussing abortion (Larry King Live 2000).

The Bush campaign's efforts to obscure the candidate's abortion position reached their height during the first presidential debate when Bush refused to verify his previously stated plan to try to overturn the FDA's approval of the RU-486 abortion drug, saying he was only interested in doing whatever would protect women's health. He then linked his position on abortion to promoting a "culture of life," saying that while "abortions ought to be more rare in America," this culture would also lead to fighting laws that "allow doctors to take the lives of our seniors" and change the culture to discourage "youngsters who feel like they tan take a neighbor's life with a gun" (Commission on Presidential Debates 2000). It would be difficult to find anyone who actively favors more abortions and more killing of older people and neighbors by teenagers. In the same debate, Vice President Al Gore clearly stated his support for a woman's right to choose abortion and RU-486, although he said he did not favor late-term or partial birth abortions (Commission on Presidential Debates 2000).

During the campaign, disguising the Republican Party's long-standing strong opposition to legal abortions could have advantaged Bush in several ways. First, only a small minority of Americans shares the Republican Party's official position--only 17 percent in the most recent Gallup poll (Gallup Organization and USA Today 2003). Publicly supporting an unpopular policy is not likely to increase one's broad-based general election support. (2) Second, even within the Republican Party, the abortion issue has generated tremendous conflict. The last several conventions have been characterized by a certain amount of rancor over abortion, although these disagreements are most visible when the platform is written before the convention. Third, Bush's campaign may have been trying to avoid having an abortion controversy attach itself to the candidate and increase the attention paid to this issue by voters.

It seems reasonably clear that Bush attempted to obscure his abortion position to broaden his appeal to pro-choice voters, but on an issue as salient as abortion, how effective was this strategy? Was it, in fact, any more effective at preventing defection of pro-choice Republicans than Gore's clear statement of his abortion position was effective at preventing defection of pro-life Democrats? Because there are a roughly equal number of pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans (Greene and Brians 2001), the most effective test may be to determine how many of each party's adherents defected in presidential voting. This comparison is facilitated by the fact that there are only small differences in the issue importance between those in the minority in either party--that is, pro-life Democrats or pro-choice Republicans (Greene and Brians 2001).

Those holding minority abortion policy views in a given political party may not defect and vote for the candidate closer to their view because the voters may not see the issue as that important, they may choose to ignore their party's and candidate's views on the issue, or they may not realize they do not hold the dominant view in the party. …