News Today – Viewpoints::What political fallout after Roe? Beware the building extremism | Opinion

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“Since the Supreme Court

handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, pollsters have asked hundreds of questions about abortion. Opinion has moved within a narrow range in the nearly 50 years since Roe was decided. Between 1975 and 2021, Gallup has asked the identical three-part question on the legality of abortion more than 55 times. Opinion bulks in the middle….”

– From “Attitudes About Abortion,” by Karlyn Bowman and Samantha Goldstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

With the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs Mississippi case overturning the constitutional guarantee of a woman’s right to choose in Roe v. Wade, the abortion issue will likely be front and center in both 2022 and 2024. States and Congress will now once again have the authority to regulate abortion policy. In response, President Biden immediately endorsed a federal “Freedom of Choice Act” to guarantee abortion rights nationally, saying “abortion will be on the ballot this fall.” This is not the place to analyze the legal merits of this case, but what follows is an analysis of the possible political ramifications.

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The legal history of abortion is quite complicated: in the early 19th century, most state and federal laws were silent on the issue. But in 1828, New York became the first state to ban abortion in most cases except when the mother’s health was threatened and many states followed suit. During the 1950s and 1960s, many illegal abortions were performed (see the film “Dirty Dancing”) and liberalizing state abortion laws began to pick up support from “social liberals.” In 1967, the California State Legislature passed the “Therapeutic Abortion Law,” which allowed abortions up to 21 weeks of a pregnancy only where the pregnancy “resulted from rape or incest or endangered the physical or mental health of the mother.” Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the law, but later said he regretted it and became an outspoken opponent of abortion. (In 1969, the California Supreme Court found that women in California had a “fundamental right to choose whether to bear children under both the California and U.S. Constitutions.”) Hawaii was the first state to broadly legalize abortion via the legislative process in March 1970. A month later, the New York State Legislature, then controlled by Republicans, passed legislation to legalize abortion in almost all cases. Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller immediately approved the law; “Rocky Signs Abortion Bill,” went the Daily News headline. (My aunt, Dolores Romolo, a nurse in Brooklyn, told me that many Catholic nurses refused to participate, something allowable because most hospitals had a “conscience” provision to permit medical personnel to opt out). Two years later, the Legislature, influenced by an influx of Catholic Democrats, repealed the law, but Rockefeller vetoed it. “I do not believe it is right for one group to impose its vision of morality on an entire society,” said Rockefeller. The New York law did not include a “residency” requirement and one study showed that roughly 60% of abortions performed in New York were to out-of-state women. Alaska and Washington quickly followed New York’s lead in reforming their abortion rules. At any rate, the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973 broadly legalized abortion in every state. Opponents loudly protested the decision and began to immediately organize against it. The court last re-affirmed Roe in the Casey case in 1992, but the appointments of Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump gave the court a pro-life majority resulting in the June 2022 decision overturning Roe vs. Wade, thus sending the issue back to the states and Congress.

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The political history of the abortion issue is heavily intertwined with the voting patterns of various religious groups. To be brief, the ancient Democratic Party was founded in the 19th century as a coalition of white Catholic immigrants (mostly Irish) and white Southerners opposing wealthy Protestants from the Northeast and Midwest. In the 1850s, an anti-immigrant faction called the “Know-Nothings” gravitated toward the newly forming Republican Party, thus solidifying Catholic Democratic loyalties. (The presidential campaigns of New York Gov. Al Smith and the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, who both received roughly 80% of the Catholic vote, also help reinforce Democratic solidarity).

Despite the first Republican President Abraham Lincoln’s repudiation of the Know-Nothings, it was roughly a century before Republicans could win even 50% of the Catholic vote when President Dwight Eisenhower did so in his easy re-election victory in 1956. Even when Catholics became solidly middle class after 1945, a majority remained Democrats because as their parents and grandparents had told them, “Some Republicans just don’t like us.” That pattern would change in the 1970s and 1980s.

Abortion played no role in the crucial 1968 election in which Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey. The key issues then were the Vietnam War, “law and order,” race riots and welfare spending. But in 1972, conservatives labeled Democratic nominee George McGovern as the candidate of “amnesty, acid and abortion.” Probably not coincidentally, McGovern became the first Democratic nominee to lose a majority of the Catholic vote. In 1976, abortion wasn’t much of an issue as both President Jerry Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter opposed a constitutional amendment banning abortion. But in 1980, Ronald Reagan insisted on a “pro-life” Republican platform. Capitalizing on general dissatisfaction with Carter, Reagan swept the Catholic vote in almost every state while winning in a landslide. In 1984, Reagan broke all records for a Republican with Catholic voters, even though the Democratic ticket included an Italian Catholic woman, Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of Queens.

After the 1984 Democratic debacle, Joe Califano, who had worked in the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Carter warned that “the party’s avid espousal of abortion on demand makes the bulk of the nation’s Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists increasingly uncomfortable in identifying as Democrats.” And in 1988, pro-life voters delivered the margin of victory for the first George Bush in key states like Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Missouri and Maryland. Back in the 1980s, Republicans got the best of both worlds: They attracted Right-to-Life Democrats, but didn’t lose many suburban women who had misgivings about the GOP pro-life platform.

But just when it seemed that Republicans would have a semi-permanent advantage on this issue, the politics of abortion suddenly changed. In the summer of 1989, in the Webster case, the Supreme Court ruled that some regulation by states was legal. The decision provoked a wave of “pro-choice” activism by suburban women. Bill Schneider wrote in the Los Angeles Times that abortion could become as divisive as the Vietnam War and Republicans could see their then-strong presidential majorities disrupted: “Both parties will lose votes because of the issue – but Republicans will lose more … Polls show pro-choice sentiment increases with education … The polls show that anti-abortion sentiment increases with religion. Opposition to abortion is strongest among religious people – Protestant, Catholic or Jewish … That’s why the GOP has a problem. Religious conservatives are a core constituency and so are upper-middle-class suburbanites. No issue is better calculated to drive those groups apart than abortion. The more GOP candidates take anti-abortion positions, the more they will lose support from “libertarian” elements – yuppies, high-status women and Westerners. They find government interference in people’s private lives offensive. California, the largest state, is also one of the most pro-choice. Abortion is an issue that could turn California’s vast white middle class away from the GOP.”

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Schneider’s prediction turned out to be right: In 1989, pro-choice Black Democrats used the issue to make history: David Dinkins was elected the first Black mayor of New York City and Doug Wilder in Virginia was elected the nation’s first Black governor. And spurred by the votes of pro-choice suburban women, California in 1992 became the first state to elect two women senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. That same year, Bill Clinton was elected, promising to keep abortion “safe, legal and rare.”

Clinton flipped both the East and West Coasts to Democrats, thus ending the string of easy Republican presidential wins. A breakdown of network exit polls showed that 62% of suburban women leaned toward the “pro-choice” side, compared to just 44% of rural women. Women in the suburbs of most “Frost Belt” metro areas, including Buffalo, tilted to Clinton in 1992 and have remained Democratic since. White Protestants in New England, upstate New York and the Upper Midwest were the historic base of the Republican Party and they began to defect en masse in the 1990s due to social issues like abortion, especially their college-educated women. A map of states having “trigger” laws that would automatically restrict abortion rights once Roe was overturned looks very similar to the “Red States” presidential map.

So what are the likely political results of Roe being overturned? As the authors Bowman and Goldstein wrote, most Americans have moderate views on abortion. They reviewed nearly 50 years of Gallup surveys where Americans were asked, “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances or illegal in all circumstances?” In more than 50 polls, those answering “under any circumstances” ranged from 21% in 1975 to 35% in May, 2022. Those answering “illegal in all circumstances ranged from a low of 12% in 1990 to a high of 23% in 2009. Those answering “legal in certain circumstances” only dipped below 50% once, with the average over the last 47 years being 53%. The network news exit polls from 2004, 2008 and 2012 found a similar result. In national terms, if either party tries to push their most extreme position – either abortion legal at all times or a total ban – they are likely to suffer politically. There is some precedent for this: In 2003, President George W. Bush signed a ban on “partial birth” or “late-term” abortions and the Gallup Poll reported that 68% of Americans supported the law.

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But the new Supreme Court decision does not outlaw abortion nationally; it sends the issue back to the states. So, that is where the action will likely be. Similarly, the national popular vote doesn’t elect the president; states through the Electoral College do. Will the abortion issue cause any state to shift their voting patterns? In the main, probably not.

States like New York, California and Washington, which had already legalized abortion before Roe, will certainly keep abortion rights intact. Gov. Kathy Hochul has already endorsed the concept of New York welcoming women from anti-choice states. Pro-choice Coastal states have already “realigned” on this issue and will keep voting Democratic. On the other hand, the states that had “trigger” laws to immediately outlaw abortion like the South are already overwhelmingly Republican and not likely to change, either.

The trillion-dollar question is what will happen in “swing states” like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, none of whom have “trigger” laws. And there are some swing states in the Sun Belt – Florida, Georgia and Arizona – who have already passed laws restricting abortion. Could they be flipped on this issue? Both Florida and Arizona allow the public to vote on ballot measures (as do Ohio and Michigan). We can expect abortion to be a hot topic at the local level. Watch those initiatives on the choice issue. (Kansas has one this year).

Given the Gallup Poll’s repeated findings that most Americans (65 to 70%) want abortion to remain legal in at least some circumstances, if Republicans try to enforce their platform of a total ban on abortions, they will likely lose. On the other hand, most Americans (at least 70%) do favor some restrictions/rules like parental notifications for minors and requiring doctors to inform patients of medical risks, so Democrats could overreach on this issue too and get beaten.

There is also a strong possibility that this issue could be just one of many that voters use in deciding how to vote. (Exit polls show that only about 10% of all voters focus solely on abortion in choosing candidates – although that could rise in the wake of Dobbs). As Clinton Campaign Manager James Carville famously said in 1992: “Most people worry late at night about how to pay for their children’s education, not an abortion.” For example, voters this year are concerned about inflation, rising crime, and shortages. So, yes, abortion will be on the ballot this fall – but so will a lot of other things.

The Supreme Court has sent the abortion issue directly back into the political process. The key thing for candidates of both parties will be to avoid extremism; that could be fatal to a career.

Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant and the co-author of “California After Arnold.” He is now working on a book on 21st-century American politics.

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