Common Ground Decides Elections

Common ground efforts on culture war issues are heating up, in part,
because of election realities.  The issue of abortion offers particular

Three recent polls ask voters to self-identify as pro-choice or
pro-life. The FoxNews poll of May 13th found that 49% called
themselves pro-life, 43% were pro-choice, 6% said both, and 2% were
unsure.  Gallup polled on May 10th and found similar results:  51%
pro-life, 42% pro-choice, 2% mixed, and 4% unsure.  A CNN poll of late
April found slightly different results: 45% pro-life, 49% pro-choice,
3% mixed, and 1% unsure.

Teasing out degrees of support, the picture is a bit more complicated.
Many American who call themselves pro-life, in fact support abortion
in some cases, such as for serious health issues for the mother, in
cases of rape, and so forth.  Likewise many who call themselves
pro-choice favor limits on abortion, such as when used for child gender
selection or in late-term pregnancies. A Roper poll of June 1 found
that 20% were of the opinion that abortion should always be illegal,
24% illegal in most cases, 33% legal in most cases, 19% legal in all
cases, and 5% unsure. A Quinnipiac poll of late April has a similar
pattern with 14% arguing that it should always be illegal, 27% usually
illegal, 37% usually legal, 15% always legal, and 7% unsure.  Notice
though, tellingly, that the preponderance of voters choose the middle

Looking only at the aggregate national numbers, then both political
parties need to move beyond their abortion issue base in order to win
and in order to form a governing coalition. Democrats need to keep a
bunch of pro-life voters in their tent.  Conversely, if the GOP hopes
to get back into power, then it needs to start winning more pro-choice
voters. Moreover, since the far wings on this issue are not really
"switchable" than the focus must be on policies that appeal to the
middle voters on this issue.  That’s why common ground efforts on
abortion and similar issues are picking up momentum.

Let’s look at the Democrats to illustrate.

With only 45% or so of Americans self-identifying as pro-choice, the
Dems need some self-identified pro-life voters to win and govern.  
Moreover, when looked at through the lens of the electoral college,
pro-life voters become even more important, inasmuch as their numbers
are not evenly dispersed across the nation but are instead concentrated
in the South, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, and the Mountain West.
Taking the solidly GOP South out of the calculations, this makes
pro-life voters in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Mountain West pivotal
for Democratic national election chances.  And some of these,
particularly pro-life Latino Catholics and pro-life suburban women, are
proven party switchers. Arguably, some of these pro-life Latino and
pro-life suburban women from places like Pennsylvania, Indiana, and
Colorado are the most important voters in America right now.

The argument might be made that in November such pro-life voters
switched parties on other grounds–the economy, the Iraq War, Tina’s
impersonation of Sarah, or whatever.  In fact, the calculation of
switchable voters will include many factors.  Switchable voters are
seldom single-issue voters.  Admittedly, few probably voted for Obama
solely on the determination that Democrats were best positioned to make
progress on abortion.  But, if less than half of American voters
self-identify as pro-choice, then the Democrats cannot build a winning
and governing coalition without attracting and keeping some
self-identified pro-lifers.  It’s a no-brainer.

Now, one more important point…  The Democrats did not win these
voters over by convincing them to be more pro-choice.  To the extent
that abortion mattered at all in these voters’ decisions, the Dems won
them by convincing them that Obama had room in his tent for pro-life
voters.  He did that in part with assurances that win-win common ground
policies would be implemented for pragmatic progress regarding both
pro-choice and pro-life concerns.

So, common ground is hot political real estate at the moment, for both
parties.  Of course, for us, the issues at stake are not about
politics.  We common grounders are genuinely convinced that the way
forward on issues like abortion is to find those win-win policies that
all sides can support in order to make measurable progress in areas
stalemated by the culture wars.  The fact that contemporary politics is
increasingly lending urgency to our efforts should only make our job

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  • jodi-jacobson

    Your use of specific polls and your analysis of those polls has been contested elsewhere, especially on the vagueness of the term “pro-life” v. “pro-choice,” by Pew as well as by other pollsters and analysts.

    I am hoping that the President’s advisors are smarter than taking those at face value, especially “internet” polls driven by people urging their supporters to “vote.”

    The facts are that people support Roe, support women making the choices themselves and also even when self-identifying as “pro-life” still access abortion at the same rate as the rest of the population.

    These types of arguments based on superificial reading of poll numbers don’t really get us anywhere.

    Again, can you articulate your goal, rather than just repeating “common ground?” What are the specifics of what you propose? I am still anxious to hear what the common ground is for you so the discussion is based on some set of specific proposals.

    Otherwise we are all left with hollow rhetoric between us.

    Thanks, Jodi

  • invalid-0

    The Electoral College does nothing special for pro-life voters, as their concentrations in certain competitive states is balanced by their concentrations in non-competitive states. In a direct election, all pro-life voters would equally influential in presidential races.

  • invalid-0

    You’re right. It’s time to get to the brass tacks. My last two posts have, indeed, been trying to make the case for why common ground or third way efforts make sense, generally. The first made the argument that common ground efforts work because they reduce unhelpful levels of conflict so that pragmatic coalitions can form. Today’s post presents the political case for such efforts, by pointing out that this is where America’s swing voters are. Next time I post, though, I’ll list four specific policy proposals as examples of common ground policies. Thanks!

  • invalid-0

    Hi, WA Jack! As you say, in a direct national election, pro-life voters would have no special significance, since all votes would be equally important. With the Electoral College, though, states that can swing become more important than states that are unlikely to swing. Current swing states–places like Pennsylvania and Colorado–have a small number of voters who in the last election voted for Obama where previously they voted for Bush. These are, as I said, the most important voters in the country for the two political parties. So, the Democrats need to think about how to keep them. The Republicans need to think about how to win them back. Now, ask yourself, who are these voters and how do they feel about RH issues? Great comment and question! Thanks!

  • jodi-jacobson

    We will have more posts on polls, but there are two things about these polls. One is that many people are reading far more into the significance of abortion as a primary issue in who and why people voted for Obama, as the Pew analysis below underscores. The second is that we should not be deciding basic human rights issues based on polls, and the efforts of the right to both stigmatize and mislead the public on the issue of abortion have been unrelenting.

    The importance of the abortion issue as a leading issue for voters among the Catholic population particularly has been completely overblown.


    From Pew:


    A Pew Research Center poll from April 2009 finds that nearly half of Catholics (47%) say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with nearly as many (42%) saying that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. The divide between more-observant and less-observant Catholics over abortion is stark, however. Weekly attending white Catholics overwhelmingly oppose abortion, with 63% saying it should be illegal in all or most cases and only 30% saying it should be legal.

    Conversely, less-observant white Catholics support legal abortion by a 61% to 29% margin.
    A similar pattern is found in Catholics’ views on stem cell research. A plurality of Catholics (49%) favor stem cell research, and other Pew Research Center polls show that most Catholics approve of Obama’s decision to provide federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Roughly four-in-ten Catholics (38%) oppose stem cell research, saying it is more important to protect the life of the embryo than to conduct the research. Most white Catholics who attend church regularly oppose stem cell research (55%), while less-observant white Catholics mostly favor stem cell research (54%).


    Polling data show, however, that abortion is only one of the factors
    that influences people’s opinions and political decision-making, and it
    ranks relatively low compared with other issues.
    In the 2008 election,
    for instance, Pew Research Center polls show that concerns about the
    economy were most important in voters’ decision-making, by a wide
    Concerns about jobs, energy, health care and education also
    mattered greatly to the overwhelming majority of voters, including

    By comparison, concerns about abortion were much less
    important, with only 39% of Catholics saying abortion would be a very
    important issue in their decision about how to vote.
    Only gay marriage
    was cited by a smaller number (21%).

    Basically the same people who say abortion is their most or one of their most important issues are the same ones who won’t vote for the Dems anyway.


  • colleen

    You leave out the polls where 63% don’t want to see Roe overturned. You neglected to mention the most recent ABC News/Washington Post Poll. June 18-21, 2009 poll which shows a 55% pro-choice majority (see:
    I don’t place much credence on Fox polls or on abortion polls that ask people to identify as ‘pro-life’ or ‘pro-choice’.
    The Democrats problem with reproductive issues is the same as their problem with effective health care reform, they’re considerably further to the right than the electorate they claim to represent.

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • emma

    Colleen, yeah, my impression is that the Obama administration is much further to the right than the people who elected him on a variety of issues.


    Wouldn’t it be nice if the powerful Democrats were in ideological agreement with Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich supports single payer health care, an end to aggressive wars and imperialism, and opposes the death penalty and expanded executive power. He supports gay marriage and is pro-choice.


    That way, you could separate out the voters who identify themselves as ‘pro-life’, but who are pro-war, pro-death penalty, anti-affordable health care, pro-imperialism, and against equality for gay people. They would, of course, gravitate toward the GOP, which could rename itself with something illustrating its main constituents: foetuses and corporations.

    • invalid-0

      He’s also further to the left than many of the people who voted for him on many issues. Such is politics.

  • invalid-0

    When I used to work on campaigns, the advice we were told about polls was to assume the polls we liked least were the ones most accurate. That’s probably smart. But, in this case, we don’t need to worry about it, since all the polling is producing similar numbers. The poll you cite from the Post, for example, is almost exactly the same as the ones I mention above from Roper and Quinnipiac. Best wishes to you and thanks again for helping think through this!

    • crowepps

      Voting results on abortion initiatives have pretty consistently shown that the majority is ProChoice as well, since most people even in very conservative parts of the country support legal abortions in at least select cases.


      The defeat of the Personhood initiative last year in Colorado, for instance, and the defeat of Proposition 4 in California (the third time in California parental notification was defeated), as well as the rejection of further restrictions in South Dakota in 2006 and again in 2008, all seem to indicate that the voters want to continue with the laws the way they are currently written.

  • invalid-0

    I think your analysis is right, Jodi. The voters who switched did so for many reasons and RH issues were not critical to them. Hope your 4th if a good one!

  • colleen

    You’re more than welcome. The results were similar but it was clear you were cherry picking. I’m just hoping the Democrats don’t blow it by pandering to the same folks who destroyed the GOP.
    Likewise, as I noted and you failed to acknowledge, the polls asking the question about seeing Roe overturned would seem to indicate that a hefty majority of folks are pro-choice. Contraceptive access shouldn’t even be on the table.
    It’s so unfortunate that so many people believe that women have late term abortions for frivolous reasons when the precise opposite is true.

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • aspen-baker

    It has always been clear to me that the labels of pro-choice and pro-life do not adequately represent the many and varied ways in which Americans view the issue of abortion and their own values and beliefs around it. This is also true for women who have had them.
    I think the common ground discussion is an attempt to address this complicated terrain, though it can come up short in lots of areas, especially when people feel like they are being forced to surrender a moral high ground or a deeply-held position, which I describe in my previous posts here:
    But, the debate must evolve into new territory or it risks being seen as irrelevant to all but the most die-hard advocates. It is not irrelevant, it is deeply important.
    Seeking to better understand where people are coming from – especially when they would prefer to self-identify as pro-life and yet they continue to support pro-choice positions like upholding Roe – should be the number one priority.  You can yell at or discredit polls all you want or you can do the work to actually figure out how to talk to people in way that they not only hear you, but trust you. That is how they will decide whether to believe and follow you.

  • colleen

    I think the common ground discussion is an attempt to address this complicated terrain

     I disagree. I think it’s a political discussion and, like the health care debates, one in which those with the best ideas and the most to lose  have very, very limited seating.The Catholic church is certainly well represented though. 


     Seeking to better understand where people are coming from – especially
    when they would prefer to self-identify as pro-life and yet they
    continue to support pro-choice positions like upholding Roe – should be
    the number one priority.

    ‘People’, not being monolithic, mean several things by this, don’t you think? And while polls do have their limitations they are an interest of mine. 


    You can yell at or discredit polls all you want or you can do the work
    to actually figure out how to talk to people in way that they not only
    hear you, but trust you.


    Beg pardon? I certainly was not ‘yelling’ and indeed do not tend to yell. I wasn’t discrediting polls so much as debating his conclusions and, to some degree, his political spin.

    Also I have many people in my life who trust me and many people I trust. (Ironically and because you have chosen to mention it in this, the first exchange we’ve had, I trust you about as far as I can throw you)



    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • aspen-baker

    Colleen, as you can see, I did not write my comment as a direct reply to you, it was written as a comment to the article. Perhaps because it followed yours, it looked like I was directing it at you? It was not. My comments were directed more movement-wide, i.e., the pro-choice movement should prioritize finding out where people are coming from (people who id as pro-life but who support pro-choice policies) so they can better communicate to them and gain their trust. The “you” was more global, and clearly, a bit lazy on my part.

  • colleen

    My apologies. As it appeared directly below my reply to another comment and I didn’t believe this software indents replies after the initial one it was difficult to tell who you were replying to. I assumed it was me because you mentioned discrediting polls which I was certainly attempting to do with Fox polls on any culture wards issues.

    Thank you for the reply.




    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • invalid-0

    The pro-life folks felt that they were very close to over-turning Roe (or at least to even more seriously limiting the right to choose) with the election of one more pro-life president in 2008 and the subsequent appointment of another pro-life justice to the Supreme Court. Just one justice away… For multiple reasons that didn’t happen.

    In the next election, with any luck, economic issues and war won’t be so prominent. That will make people more likely to vote on social issues like abortion.

    With election margins so close in general, the ability of a pro-choice Democrat like Obama (even if he’s not as pro-choice as some might wish) to garner even a sliver of additional support from the pro-life middle by emphasizing common ground issues could be very, very important.

    If, in the next seven and a half years, Obama is in a position to replace a Scalia or a Thomas or a wavering Kennedy with a justice of his choosing, Roe could be secure for another generation. And maybe there would be greater scope to broaden the definition of the right to choose.

    I don’t know what that’s worth in terms of temporary compromise or putting aside differences with long-standing opponents, but it would seem to be worth something fairly significant to achieve that. If I were pro-choice, I’d have to give that prospect serious consideration before opposing the common ground approach.

    If I were pro-life, I’d also have to look at common ground issues as the only politically feasible way to limit the number of abortions in the coming years. I’d be more willing to accept the fact that some of the lowest abortion rates in the world are in countries where abortion is legal and figure out why that is. I’d realize that the pro-life strategy here has been, at best, a limited success in reducing abortions over the past 36 years. Unless I was totally an extremist and motivated more by political affiliation to Republicans, I’d be looking for a new strategy. In other words, I’d be totally in-play politically. Obama could win with my vote.

    Finally, what if the new numbers of people identifying as pro-life were willing to identify that way because Obama changed the definition of what it meant to be pro-life? What if people were beginning to realize that by making our world more welcoming to women and their children, the demand for abortion could decline dramatically and we’d create a more just society, rather than simply a more punitive one? That sounds pro-life to me.

    • invalid-0

      AA you say this better than I do. The Obama administration has changed the definition of pro-life (much to the consternation of some on the right). Your description of the looming re-emergence of social issues is also right, in my opinion. Pro-choicers opposing common ground efforts risk alientating some portion of the swing voters who may be needed to return Obama and the Democrats to office. Pro-lifers opposing common ground efforts risk compromising the only pragmatic way to reduce abortions. And, unsaid (but surely you agree) is the fact that common ground efforts also advance truly needed policies for the health and welfare of mothers and children.

  • invalid-0

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes–that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The Constitution gives every state the power to allocate its electoral votes for president, as well as to change state law on how those votes are awarded.

    The bill is currently endorsed by 1,659 state legislators — 763 sponsors (in 48 states) and an additional 896 legislators who have cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. This national result is similar to recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado– 68%, Iowa –75%, Michigan– 73%, Missouri– 70%, New Hampshire– 69%, Nevada– 72%, New Mexico– 76%, North Carolina– 74%, Ohio– 70%, Pennsylvania — 78%, Virginia — 74%, and Wisconsin — 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Delaware –75%, Maine — 71%, Nebraska — 74%, New Hampshire –69%, Nevada — 72%, New Mexico — 76%, Rhode Island — 74%, and Vermont — 75%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas –80%, Kentucky — 80%, Mississippi –77%, Missouri — 70%, North Carolina — 74%, and Virginia — 74%; and in other states polled: California — 70%, Connecticut — 73% , Massachusetts — 73%, New York — 79%, and Washington — 77%.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 29 state legislative chambers, in small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Oregon, and both houses in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington. These five states possess 61 electoral votes — 23% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


  • invalid-0

    I may have posted this before on RH, but I still like it:

    When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) did a poll on the opinion of US adults on abortion, they sought to hide the results by releasing them on December 30th when few journalists were paying attention.


    The results, which the bishops have failed to make available in full, show that a mere 11% of the nation’s adults support a complete ban on abortion. This figure is one of the lowest found in a large-scale poll in recent years. And shows how isolated the US bishops’ antiabortion position is.