Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) was perplexed. Two long months had passed since the Center for Medical Progress started releasing undercover videos in which current and former Planned Parenthood employees described the grim economics of fetal tissue harvesting. Since then, a long congressional recess had come and gone and Republican-run states had redoubled their efforts to defund the family planning titan. Yet in the most recent poll from Reuters/Ipsos, 54 percent of voters still favored federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
"Those numbers are news to me," said King. "I haven’t paid any attention to the polls. But am I surprised? Yes. That would explain some of the reasons why the leadership is not committing to defund."
Since King made that analysis, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has returned from the field, with even better news for Planned Parenthood. The full poll, to be released today, will find that the group's favorable rating is slightly up since the July release of the videos, from 45-30 percent favorable-unfavorable to 47-31 percent. Going into Tuesday's 10 a.m. congressional hearing on the group, a well-hyped showdown between the GOP and Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, the video campaign appears not to have shifted public opinion on federal defunding.
"This is something the pro-life movement has been trying to educate people about for many years," said Mallory Quigley, spokeswoman for the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List. "I’ve seen polling that finds even some people who consider themselves pro-life don’t know that Planned Parenthood performs abortions. When you’ve got President Obama and Miss America telling the lie for you, it goes a long way. I grew up with Judy Blume books, where the last couple pages would tell you that you should go to Planned Parenthood for health services."
The sturdiness of support for Planned Parenthood stands out in a field of anti-abortion victories. For seven years, until 2015, more Americans told Gallup pollsters they were "pro-life" than "pro-choice." Activists have credited even the omnipresence of social media, and the attendant photos of babies and sonograms, for building a culture of life. It's allowed the movement to talk over the mainstream press and the dominant, progressive cultural voices. It hasn't been able to talk over the Planned Parenthood defense squad.
"When mainstream news organizations do decide to cover the videos, they’ve parroted Planned Parenthood’s talking points and added qualifying statements about the credibility of the videos," argued The Federalist's Bre Payton, in one of that conservative site's many critiques of the funding debate. "They also love to use the phrase 'highly edited' when talking about the undercover footage, which suggests to the reader there’s a slight chance the abortion provider deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Steve King had worried about that. "When this emerged, I said, 'Cut all funding and do it now,'" said King. "If we didn't do that, we'd give Planned Parenthood a whole year to spend millions of dollars on PR and lobbying. I wanted to do it like ACORN -- that vote came so quickly that I think many Democrats came to a conviction that ACORN funding was a threat to their re-election."
No such phenomenon has subsumed Planned Parenthood. Republican messaging has been impeccable -- female members at the head of the line to argue for defunding, the party fully committed to funding any "woman's health" that is not Planned Parenthood. From Carly Fiorina to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), the party's presidential candidates have insisted that it would be the fault of Barack Obama, not the GOP, if the government temporarily shut down over the funding issue. Yet the numbers haven't moved.
"Certainly, the debate's come a long way," said Quigley. "I don’t think Romney would have touched this with a ten-foot pole. You’ve got all these celebrities coming out to defend Planned Parenthood; on the other, the pro-life movement, as you know, does not exactly have a lot of Hollywood on call."