Republican presidential contender John McCain is if anything a good listener. The instant he heard the loud squeals from Republican pro-life hawks that his campaign would be DOA if he dared tried to shove former Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge or maverick Senator Joe Lieberman on the ticket, he back pedaled fast. Both are moderates on abortion. And that made them anathema to the hawks.
We’ll never know whether McCain’s brief float of their names as GOP VP possibilities was a trial balloon, a deft feint, or just loose talk. But it did set things up nicely for Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Despite much talk from McCain’s camp and the pro and con pundit chatter touting her as being fresh, young, a reformer, anti-GOP establishment and an ingenious pick, or slamming her as a political school girl novice, and a disastrous pick, the fact is Palin’s on the ticket to assuage the pro-life hawks. But more importantly to fire up the millions of men and women voters who demand that a GOP presidential candidate firmly oppose abortion. That’s the price for their vote.
The polls that show that the abortion issue languishes on the far back burner in the 2008 election badly miss this. Several major polls since 2003 have shown that while the abortion question at times has slid lower on the public’s issues radar scope, it never slipped entirely off it. Americans have been almost evenly divided between those who call themselves pro-choice and pro-life. In the five presidential elections between 1984 and 2000 the majority of voters who said that abortion was a major issue for them backed the GOP candidate. Pro-life leaning voters were more likely to dash to the polls to back the GOP candidate.
A Gallup Poll Values and Belief survey in May measured the effect of pro and anti-abortion sentiment on the presidential race. It found that the pro life voter edge translated out to about a 2 to 3 percent bump up for the GOP presidential candidate.
In a runaway election for either the Democratic or GOP presidential candidate that percent wouldn’t mean much. In a tight down to the wire election that percentage jump could be huge. The 2008 election appears to be just that; a squeaker win for either Obama or McCain. The Gallup Values survey also found one other thing that Team McCain almost certainly picked up on and that’s even when voters say abortion is only a minor concern, or one of many issues, that changes as Election Day gets nearer. It found a measurable jump in those who suddenly said that they do care where a candidate stands on abortion. The big majority of those for whom it matters label themselves pro-life.
Palin is a made-in-heaven choice to rev them up. Even amidst the heavy pot shots and ridicule at her non existent foreign policy and national security resume, the GOP cash tills have started to ring loudly. The Republican National Committee gleefully said that millions poured in within hours after McCain picked Palin.
The dilemma for Democrat’s is how to defuse the pro-life hot box. The obvious counter is to fire up pro choice advocates. They also number in the millions, and an aroused, impassioned plea to them and their march to the polls potentially could give Obama the bump up he needs from the pro choice side. NARAL-Pro Choice America and NOW wasted no time in lambasting McCain and Palin. They called his picking her a cynical ploy and smoking gun proof that he’s a rigid extremist on abortion. The big question though is will the blasts do more to fire up pro choice or pro life men and women voters?
A too bare fisted, down and dirty hit against her for her hard nosed pro-life stance could backfire in another way. Many might see this as tantamount to witness badgering. In criminal court trials, DA’s and defense attorneys always tread carefully with a witness who is a middle-class or working class mother. Beating up on them could stir juror sympathy for them and cost them a case. Palin is not only a tough politician but to some the epitome of the struggling American mother. Millions of struggling working class mothers could identify with her no matter what their views on abortion.
The pro-choice groups, though, had no choice but to quickly go on the attack. Palin has drawn a harder line on the abortion issue than any other presidential ticket candidate in the past two decades and that includes W. Bush. He showed a slight tinge of flexibility by at least saying that he opposed abortion except in instances of rape and incest and when a mother's life is in danger. Palin opposes abortion even on those grounds.
It matters little where one stands on abortion or Palin. Plopping her on the GOP presidential ticket assured that abortion won’t stay on the backburner much longer this election.Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back (Middle Passage Press, August 2008).