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Why must Democrats cave on abortion?

Ever since Bernie Sanders chose to support a candidate who was questionable on abortion rights while ignoring one who wasn't, there have been think pieces after think pieces in every major media outlet lauding Bernie's decision to be open to Democratic candidates who are against abortion in some form or another (despite the fact that Bernie is still technically an Independent) and telling us that in order for the Democratic Party to ever win again it basically has to stop supporting abortion. What these pieces amount to is an Underpants Gnome Theory of Abortion, which goes something like this:

Step 1: Democrats say they don't really care about abortion all that much and will support candidates who campaign on the fact that they are against abortion.

Step 2: ...?

Step 3: Democrats win all the races. The anti-abortion Democrats never have to vote on the issue of abortion. Women's rights are forever secured and we all live happily ever after.

None of these pieces (this being representative of them) spell out why abortion is the issue Democrats need to be open on and why doing so would lead to victory. I don't have much local or district by district data on these issues. I mostly use national data because it's readily available. So there's the obvious disclaimer that circumstances vary by district and it's certainly possible that in some places, abortion could be an issue that could help decide an election and a candidate might stand a better chance of winning by not being 100% pro-choice.

For the most part, people choose one candidate over another because one candidate belongs to the same political party the voter belongs to. And despite what a lot of polls and conventional media wisdom says, most people consistently vote for one party or another. There aren't really ~30% people who are Independents. They tell pollsters they are. But when it comes down to voting, they choose one party consistently. There are really only about ~10% of voters in general who regularly switch parties when voting (Again, this is in general. It can vary district by district). This is to say that even if the Underpants Gnome theory were possible, there's a limited number of people Democrats would able to flip to their side.

But let's assume for the sake of argument that there are more potential swing voters out there than I'm claiming. What does the data say they care about? How might they be making voting decisions? What issues do they care the most about? I'll spare you a bunch of political science theory and data. But in general, voters care about their economic interests and their safety. This gives you a good sense of what voters care about over a long period of time. The economy and war/terrorism are consistently the biggest issues. Rarely does abortion pop up, and when it does, it's not relatively that important.

Here's some polling from the 2016 election, the outcome which has all of these people writing articles arguing for Democrats to abandon abortion

As you can see, there were many issues that voters thought were more important than abortion. And even then, we can't just assume that only anti-choice voters were the ones who cared the most. Indeed, as you can see, more Democrats cared about abortion than Republicans. So we can just as easily say that pro-choice voters cared more about protecting abortion rights than anti-choice voters cared about denying abortion rights. Here's more evidence of that claim:

The group of voters that cared most about abortion was liberal Democrats, or those most likely to be pro-choice. The third highest group were conservative Democrats, which are probably less likely to be pro-choice. In some districts where there aren't many liberal Democrats, the party/candidate will need to cater more to these voters. But again, less than half of them said abortion was very important to their vote. There would seem to be other issues that could be talked about in order to try and get their vote.

Looking at the moderate/liberal Republicans, they were the least likely to view abortion as a very important issue. And surely there are some districts where we have to cater to them in order to win. But since only 31% of them said abortion was very important, it would seem like the Democratic Party would be better served focusing on more important issues. Though even just focusing on abortion, here is a poll showing how each of those groups view abortion, and another about how voters thought each candidate shared their views on issues. Moderates on both sides think abortion should be legal in at least some instances. And Clinton overwhelming reflected more voter's views on abortion than Trump did. So there didn't seem to be much room for swinging voters on this issue for Democrats in 2016.

Let's zoom out from 2016 and try to look at it across a longer time frame since 2016 could have been an outlier. Here's a gallup poll tracking the importance of abortion when voting. Voters who say the candidate "must share their view" consistently comes in behind "not important" and "one of many important issues".

Here's another gallup poll getting at something similar, again suggesting that even if you make things only about abortion, there's almost as many voters deciding their vote on abortion who will vote for the pro-choice candidate as there are the anti-choice candidate. So even if Democrats choose abortion as the one issue they're going to use to swing voters, it's not clear at all that being anti-choice is the way to go.

None of the data that I can find shows convincing evidence that Democrats need to be recruiting anti-choice candidates and openly appealing to these unicorn voters who have a strong anti-choice opinions which will swing their vote for Democratic candidates. Regarding abortion, I'm not convinced Democrats just don't have a messaging problem. A majority of voters seem to favor abortion being legal in general. Perhaps Republican lawmakers are finding the few instances where swing voters don't agree with Democrats. But given how extreme Republicans are getting, I doubt that's the case.

Regarding the bigger picture of winning races, I'm not nearly convinced abortion is a strong issue to focus on. It seems very clear that the economy is and will always be one of the few most important issues, and one Democrats can always improve on. Beyond that it seems clear that issues like immigration and even foreign policy will be more important to voters moving forward than trying to focus on abortion. There's a lot more that can be said about this topic that I might address in another post. But since this was all too much for twitter I wanted to get this data all in one place and challenge the basic premise that caving abortion is the magic key for Democrats moving forward.

Update: I forgot that I had access to some local polling. I can't post any of it due to confidentiality issues. But it is from far back enough that some of it polls Democrats in heavily Republican districts in the south, the exact races many think we need to cater to anti-choice in so we can win. These Democrats were certainly more moderate than the average Democrat. And some were even anti-choice. But when you ask voters why they supported the Democrat, abortion was way down the list. The leading responses were typically that they did their job well and they knew them personally. So in other words, they were riding off of incumbency advantage and being personally known in the district. I've seen this up close with the few moderates we helped get elected. Each of them had a lot of name recognition in their district before they started campaigning. Doing this is probably much more important, at least initially, than a candidate's stanch on any particular issue.

Another update: As you can see in this link, the group meeting with the DNC not only uses false Republican narratives to support their anti-abortion claims, they don't have an actual plan as to how this will help Democrats win elections. So like I said, it's an Underpants Gnome Theory.