The Abortion ‘Litmus Test’ May Actually Help Democrats

There are more flippable pro-choice Republicans and independents than we sometimes realize.

A perennial topic among Democratic officeholders and activists is whether the party’s increasingly uniform pro-choice position on abortion ought to be relaxed to run anti-abortion candidates or appeal to anti-abortion voters. This is not just a subset of the usual centrists-versus-progressives argument either. Indeed, more than a few left-bent “economic populists” have argued that downplaying pro-choice views or social-issues liberalism generally can help bring back some white working-class voters — Democrats or former Democrats — alienated by the “cultural elitism” of self-consciously cosmopolitan upscale voters and opinion leaders. Bernie Sanders embraced this view in campaigning for Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello last year.

In any event, the debate within the Democratic Party on having something like an abortion-rights “litmus test” is most often framed as a choice between principle and political expediency. This way of looking at the issue begins with an assumption that a “big tent” approach makes more sense politically. But what if it actually doesn’t?

That’s the question raised by some new research indicating that there really aren’t many Democrats or independents whose likelihood to pull the lever for Democratic candidates would increase if they oppose a right to abortion. Conversely, there are a lot more independents and Republicans who are more likely to vote for a candidate who is pro-choice. As Vox’s Anna North sums up the numbers:

Just 8 percent of Democrats would be more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes abortion, according to a report released by the polling firm PerryUndem earlier this month, ahead of Roe v. Wade’s 45th anniversary on Monday. Meanwhile, 31 percent of Republicans would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights….


46 percent of independents told the firm they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported abortion rights, and just 15 percent said they’d be more inclined to vote for someone who opposed them.

And despite the absolute grip RTLers have on Republican elected officials, and the reputation that anti-abortion activists have for a grim, determined efficiency, among Republican voters generally, ending abortion rights is less of a big deal:

In general, abortion appeared to be a bigger issue for Democrats than for Republicans — 71 percent of Democrats said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supported women having the right to an abortion, while just 36 percent of Republicans said a candidate’s opposition to that right would help win their support. Thirty percent of Republicans said a candidate’s position on abortion made no difference to their vote, while only 20 percent of Democrats said the same.

All of this should add up to a general argument that Democrats win more and risk less by sticking to their principles on abortion rights.

No, that doesn’t necessarily address the argument that Democrats should speak less loudly or often on the abortion issue, or adopt a different kind of message on how it all fits together. And there may be a few places in the country where anti-abortion views are so popular that it’s tough to win without accommodating them (though Doug Jones’s win in Alabama undermines that claim).

But the belief that strongly favoring abortion rights is a political lodestone for the Donkey Party is assumed far more often than it is demonstrated. Evidence that the contrary is true should be welcomed by progressives who would prefer to treat a majority of the U.S. population — and an even larger majority of Democratic voters — as capable of making their own reproductive health decisions.

The Abortion ‘Litmus Test’ May Actually Help Democrats