Why the Iowa Caucus Is About Abortion


After what is the most protracted, ridiculous run-up to a primary season I’ve seen in the couple of decades I’ve closely followed politics, we’re finally going to actually begin the Republican primaries, a mere three months after everyone is completely exhausted of them. The entire situation is particularly frustrating, because the majority of the focus, from the media and the candidates, has been on Iowa, even though the state has been known repeatedly to give far more weight—and even victories—to candidates that have literally no chance of winning the Republican nomination, because these candidates hit a bunch of buttons for Christian conservatives but have little appeal outside of those circles. The 2008 win for Mike Huckabee, who was quickly wiped out when a more diverse group of Republicans got a crack at primary voting, is a perfect example of this.

To make the entire situation even more frustrating, for all the hundreds of cable news hours and column inches dedicated to the Iowa caucus, abortion is rarely mentioned.  The narrative this year is that voters are mainly concerned with the economy, which translates for conservatives into vague concerns about the deficit, even though there’s no reason to think that lowering the deficit through spending cuts would do anything but exacerbate the recession. The problem with applying that logic to Iowa is that it utterly fails to explain the voting choices of the Christian right which rules the caucus in the state. The differences in economic policies between the Republicans simply aren’t dramatic enough to explain Mitt Romney’s inability to get more than a quarter of voters behind him, for one thing. For another, just because the voters say they care mostly about economic issues to a pollster doesn’t mean that they don’t vote their gut when it actually comes time to make a decision.

To really understand Iowa, you need to understand the primacy of abortion as an issue to the Christian right. It’s baffling how little attention this gets, considering the tendency of all the candidates—and especially those whose numbers in Iowa, like Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, eclipse what they can get in most other states—to make frequent statements about how they consider banning abortion to be a number one priority and the big issue of our time. Economic issues are confusing and the difference between candidates is too hazy to matter to the Republican base. Foreign policy doesn’t seem to matter that much at all to voters this year. But abortion is a nice, simple issue, and the candidates by and large seem to get what the media doesn’t: The more you pound the table and stereotype women who get abortions as heartless slatterns, the better you do in the polls.

The inability of the Beltway media to grasp this creates situations like the one described at Talking Points Memo, where it’s deemed some kind of mystery as to why Ron Paul has surged in the polls, nearly gaining on Romney and truly threatening to beat him on Tuesday. Paul calls himself a “libertarian,” and this is seen by the punditry as somehow in opposition to the evangelical right, a belief that seems to be based on the questionable notion that libertarianism is a separate philosophy instead of just an extremely cranky version of the same old conservatism.

It is true that if you think Republican voters in Iowa really are motivated by the economy, Paul’s newfound popularity is a bit hard to grasp. But if you realize that they’re mostly obsessed with women’s uteruses, suddenly his popularity makes a lot more sense. Paul has been blanketing Iowa with anti-choice ads that make the risible and extremely unlikely claim that he saw doctors throwing a live baby away to let it die. This kind of story is the sort of urban myth anti-choicers exchange amongst each other: fantasies generated to justify their irrational fear and hatred of abortion providers, because the alternative is to admit that they’re just out to control women’s bodies. By speaking to anti-choice fanatics in their own language of fantasy over reality, Paul signaled that “libertarian” is a meaningless label, and that he’s actually one of the tribe. (Interestingly, the danger in indulging elaborate religious fantasies like this is that other fantasists will engage you, which Paul found out when a radio host asked him why he didn’t swoop in and rescue the supposedly living baby. The more elaborate fantasy of the radio host inadvertently exposed the giant plot hole in Paul’s story-spinning.)

Compare Paul’s lurid fantasies about babies in buckets with Romney’s more staid, reality-based anti-choice views. Romney’s against abortion, sure, but as far as I know, he basically avoids spinning the tall tales that characterize the anti-choice movement’s communication style. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Romney spinning tales about what anti-choicers wished abortion looked like. Romney has a straightforward, if boring, rhetorical style that’s completely opposed to the outlandish fantasies the religious right trades in daily. Also, you get the impression that he’d be a little repulsed spinning such a graphic and detailed whopper. Thus, the Christian right that controls the Iowa Republican caucus process can’t ever see him as one of them.

Of course, admitting the centrality of abortion—and more importantly, of fantastical beliefs about it that have no relationship to reality—to the Iowa caucus would basically be to admit that it probably doesn’t matter that much in the long run. While misinformation can spread rapidly in the mainstream right (or any mainstream group), there’s something so icky and obviously false about the kinds of myths that get anti-choice fanatics moving that those myths simply can’t work their magic on a more diverse conservative electorate.

It’s a shame, really. Because if the Iowa caucus was regarded in the light it deserves—as a reflection of what Christian right extremists are thinking right now, instead of as a predictor of larger trends—it could be incredibly useful. It would be nice, for instance, if the nation at large was aware of how Christian conservatives are voting not because of reality or even realistic-sounding misinformation, but because they believe stories that are too fantastical on their surface to be true. If the nation as a whole really, truly understood that, the religious right would have a much harder time getting power.

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  • katie-stack

    First – just the remind everyone – there’s a HUGE difference between a Republican caucus and a Democrat one. Really, I don’t think you can even call a Republican caucus a caucus – and I blame THAT with the weird Republican results. They are literally just voting – there’s math, 2nd and 3rd picks, debate and discussion at a Democratic caucus. 

    I also want to suggest that it’s not that Iowa caucus-goers who are preoccupied with the abortion issue – but rather that for Evangelical Christians, a strong anti-abortion stance denotes a certain “morality” and “goodness.” For whatever reason anti-choicers think that being anti-choice is a liability (how many times have you heard them refer to it as a culture war?) and that “standing up” for the “dignity of the unborn” is somehow an example of strong character. They assme that that will impact their stances on other issues as well. For Evangelicals abortion isn’t an “issue” – it’s a litmus test that indicates how they will govern overall. I know a fair amount of Republicans who are personally pro-choice, but they’ll only consider anti-choice candidates because the others are “just being politicians.”

    And as for Ron Paul – he is the ONLY candidate in Iowa running a ground campaign. I’m a registered Republican this year (I really like going to caucuses) and so far I’ve only recieved calls from Paul volunteers. And person-to-person contact REALLY matters for Iowans. We’re spoiled. Republicans and Democrats alike expect candidates to talk to us, to come to our events, and to send staffers to our door. I honestly think that’s the reason for Paul’s jump in the polls. 

    But on that note…I got a robo-call from the state rep. who introduced a ton of anti-choice legislation in Iowa recently. She’s supporting Paul.