The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Abortion attitudes are a chameleon, and Republicans are trying to adapt

More than 40 years after the Supreme Court's landmark Roe vs. Wade decision, the fight over abortion is back in the political spotlight. This time, it’s state and federal governments getting involved. (Video: Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

Republicans are feeling bullish about abortion even after high-profile election losses in which candidates faced fierce criticism of their abortion views and were accused of waging a "war on women."

Coinciding with Wednesday's March for Life, the Republican National Committee, meeting today in Washington, is considering a new resolution that calls for candidates to speak up about their antiabortion views and defend their support for restricting abortion in a variety of situations. A more vocal GOP could raise abortion's profile in the 2014 midterms, coinciding with plans by abortion rights activists to ramp up campaigns against hundreds of new abortion restrictions enacted by Republican-led states in recent years. 

Significantly, the Republican resolution argues that public opinion is on Republicans' side: 

According to extensive polling conducted by Gallup since 1975, many Republican stances regarding abortion garner at least 60% support from the public and across the political spectrum:
· 87% support informed-consent laws about certain possible risks of the abortion procedure;
· 80% support banning abortion during the 3rd trimester;
· 71% support parental consent laws;
· 69% support imposing a 24-hour wait period before an abortion;
· 64% of Americans support banning abortion during the 2nd trimester;
· 64% support banning partial-birth abortion;
· 64% support spousal notification laws that require the husband to be simply notified if his wife seeks an abortion;

The resolution contends that Republicans who remain silent on abortion fail to take advantage of wide public support for such abortion restrictions. The document was first reported by CNN's Peter Hamby.

The data are striking, but also perplexing: was timid rhetoric on abortion a major reason why Republicans such as Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia and Todd Akin in Missouri lost winnable races where abortion and women's rights became prominent issues? Many observers felt the opposite, that their strong anti-abortion stances cost them the elections.

Two factors bridge the gap between the data and those campaigns.

1. Abortion is a public opinion chameleon: Consistent majorities of Americans support a variety of restrictions on access, but the public whips in the opposite direction in several key cases: potential birth defect, rape and when the pregnancy endangers the woman’s health.

In 2012, the respected General Social Survey found at least seven in 10 Americans said a women should be able to obtain an abortion if there is a strong chance of a birth defect (70 percent), if the pregnancy was caused by rape (72 percent), or if the women’s health is in serious danger. (83 percent).

Beyond specific policies, Americans' basic attitude toward abortion is that it should be legal in all or most cases, a consistent finding for over two decades in Washington Post-ABC News polling.

2. Republicans who have voiced support for these particular restrictions have faced the sharpest criticism for waging a “war on women.”

Republican-led state legislatures have enacted an unprecedented number of abortion restrictions in the past few years, but only a few have faced serious blowback from voters for their positions, and those who did veered into the “no man’s land” of abortion opposition.

Last year, Planned Parenthood pummeled Virginia Republicans Ken Cuccinelli to the tune of $1 million for allegedly opposing allowing rape victims to abort pregnancies that result from their attacks, saying he was “wrong for women, wrong for Virginia.” His campaign didn’t, and couldn’t refute the ad’s claim on factual grounds, since the candidate did oppose allowing abortion in the case of rape.

Exit polling found abortion was a key driver of opposition to Cuccinelli. Only 20 percent of Virginia voters said abortion was the most important factor in their vote, and Cuccinelli lost this group by a 59 to 34 percent margin to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. This helped outweigh Cuccinelli’s single-digit advantages among the 45 percent of Virginia voters who prioritized the economy and 27 percent who said health care was most important.

One year earlier, Missouri Republican Todd Akin lost by a landslide against a weakened Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill after infamously suggesting that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant. Akin’s mistake was not opposing abortion in general – or even in numerous cases – but suggesting that extraordinarily popular legal protections for rape victims were unnecessary because the female body will “shut that thing down.”

The Cuccinelli and Akin tales demonstrate the risk to Republicans of pushing too far right on abortion policy in the face of strong public support for keeping it legal in certain circumstances. But Cuccinelli and Akin can also be seen as extreme exceptions. Very few Republicans have been ejected from office after helping enact over 200 new state-level abortion restrictions in the past few years, an unprecedented pace.

The lack of significant blowback is striking, but far less striking after considering the public’s ranging attitudes on the issue. When Republicans avoid abortion’s third rails of rape, women’s health and birth defects, it’s much easier to defend their position to voters.

For more on abortion attitudes, check out:

Thousands of abortion foes set for March for Life in Washington

 If gay marriage and pot are now OK, why isn’t abortion?

Majority of Americans favor restricting abortion at 20 weeks

States passed 205 abortion restrictions in three years. That’s totally unprecedented.

Juliet Eilperin and Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.