In 2012, Democrats ran a well-coordinated campaign to demonize and distort pro-life candidates as anti-woman misogynists hell-bent on taking away birth control. The Republican response to this line of attack consisted mostly of pivoting away to focus on “jobs” and the “economy.” With rare exceptions, instead of responding, GOP candidates were unwilling to answer the attacks head-on.
In order to win elections in the future, Republicans will have to change tactics and better respond to these scurrilous accusations.
They had a chance to change things in Virginia in 2013. Going into the Virginia governor’s race, pro-life advocates believed it would be a different ballgame with a strong pro-life leader in Ken Cuccinelli as the GOP nominee. During his career, Cuccinelli was known as a candidate unlikely to back down from a fight and unafraid to counterpunch.
On cue, and pulling from the 2012 playbook, Democrats pounded Cuccinelli with millions of dollars worth of “war on women” attack ads. The pounding was so severe that, just a couple of weeks before Election Day, the Cook Political Report found that McAuliffe’s campaign had spent more of its ad budget (26 percent) hitting the Republican on this topic than on any other issue. That is, McAuliffe and his allies ran more than 5,600 TV spots on abortion alone.
But instead of combating these so-called war on women charges, Republicans opted again to try to change the subject. McAuliffe’s echo chamber was complete when the press failed to cut through the paid media assault and relay accurate information about each candidate’s actual positions.
My organization, the Susan B. Anthony List, a national pro-life group, invested over $800,000 working to elect Cuccinelli. Knowing that the Republican candidate’s longstanding pro-life record would draw heavy fire, we sought to go on offense and directly counter the war on women charges. To start, in March of last year we commissioned a comprehensive poll with the goal of determining which messages could effectively drive votes away from McAuliffe.
Our $60,000 survey, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, tested 15 different negative messages about McAuliffe. We tested topics such as McAuliffe’s support of Obamacare, his union ties, his GreenTech scandal, his shady Global Crossing business dealings, and his support for gay marriage. We also tested how voters reacted to learning of McAuliffe’s extreme stances on abortion.
Our abortion messages ranked high on the list, often within the top two most effective messages among key voter demographics, in turning voters away from McAuliffe. Among our findings:
· Northern Virginia women: 51 percent of Northern Virginia women said they were much less likely to support McAuliffe after hearing he supported sex-selection abortion. This message ranked second most effective out of the 15 messages tested among these women. The fifth most effective message with this group was McAuliffe’s support of taxpayer-funded abortion, with 41 percent of Northern Virginia women saying they were less likely to support him.
· Independents: 55 percent of independents said they were less likely to support McAuliffe after learning he supported sex-selection abortion. This ranked second out of the 15 messages. The fourth most effective message among this group was McAuliffe’s support of taxpayer-funded abortion, with 44 percent saying they were less likely to support him.
· Undecided voters: McAuliffe’s support of sex-selection abortion was the most effective message with this group, with 56 percent saying they were less likely to support McAuliffe. The issue of taxpayer-funded abortion ranked third with this group, with 49 percent saying they were much less likely to support McAuliffe.
· Republicans: Among base Republicans, the issue of taxpayer funded abortion ranked second in turning them away from McAuliffe, with 86 percent saying they were much less likely to support him after hearing this message. Sex selection was a close third. Among soft Republicans, sex-selection abortion ranked fifth, with 67 percent less likely to support McAuliffe.
Among voters who initially told the pollster that they were supporting McAuliffe but backed down from their support upon hearing these messages, 66 percent voluntarily cited disagreement with McAuliffe’s abortion stance as a reason. This ranked highest of any issue volunteered by respondents.
These results clearly showed that by going on offense on abortion and exposing his opponent as extreme, Cuccinelli could have not merely energized the base, but also turned suburban women, independents, and undecided voters against the Democratic candidate.
After commissioning this extensive survey, we dug deeper by conducting two focus groups in Loudoun County, a key swing area in northern Virginia. Our first focus group was with Republican-leaning independent women, and our second was with Democratic-leaning independent women.
With both groups, we outlined each candidate’s actual position on abortion, without bias, and asked each to identify who they believed was the abortion extremist. Republican-leaning women said it was McAuliffe; the Democratic-leaning women labeled both candidates extreme. The focus group exercise reinforced the findings of our poll and proved the abortion issue could have been a net-positive for Cuccinelli.
Following our polling and focus groups, we aggressively got the results into the hands of the Cuccinelli campaign, the Republican Governors Association, the Virginia Republican party, and outside groups interested in the race. What feedback did we receive on this solid data? None.
The SBA List charged forward, spending the bulk of our resources making direct contact with voters – reaching over a million by phone and nearly 70,000 at their front doors. Our message was to expose the extremes of McAuliffe’s support for abortion on demand, up until the moment of birth, including sex selection and taxpayer-funded abortions.
Weeks after Cuccinelli’s loss, a column published in Campaigns and Elections magazine confirmed the essentials of the SBA List’s strategy. The outcome of the election could have been different if those calling the shots in the GOP had worked with us to play offense on abortion and spent more of their own resources spreading the same message.
Experimental research by Evolving Strategies and the Middle Resolution PAC found that what most moved voters away from Terry McAuliffe was detailing his extreme pro-abortion position:
“A single phone message emphasizing McAuliffe’s support for unrestricted, late-term, and taxpayer-funded abortions shifted support a net 13 to 15 points away from McAuliffe and toward Cuccinelli… A topic declared radioactive by nearly everyone, locked away in secure storage behind a blazing Hazmat warning by the Cuccinelli campaign, appears to have been a powerful weapon for the Republican ticket that could have substantially closed the gap, and possibly even won Cuccinelli the election.”
The authors emphasized the urgent need for the Republican party to aggressively cull and refine dynamic voter data through experiments. Data-driven campaigns, they argue, built out through a system of creative targeting and messaging tests, must replace the GOP’s preferred strategy of targeted silence the last several cycles. Blindly following the gut instinct of the consultant class to ignore social issues is failing miserably. More resources funneled towards an aggressive pro-life message could have made the race winnable.
The evidence suggests the other side had similar data that it didn’t ignore. Schaeffer and Smith pointed out that the narrowness of the race was a surprise for nearly everyone, save perhaps McAuliffe’s own data team. It makes sense now why, just as Cuccinelli was making a comeback in the polls prior to Election Day, the Democratic party of Virginia launched a deceitful robocall campaign. In an effort to suppress the GOP base vote, the call went out to conservative, pro-life voters alleging – of all things – that Cuccinelli was not truly pro-life.
The data-backed evidence is clear: Abortion can be a winning issue for pro-life candidates. Going into 2014, will the GOP’s consulting class finally take notice after two losing cycles, dominated by the war on women narrative?
As long as abortion continues in this country, so too will the restlessness in the hearts and minds of Americans. The issue will not go away until the injustice itself is ended. The good news is that a huge opportunity awaits the candidates, consultants, and party prepared to fight.
Following the grisly details of barbaric fetal homicide in Kermit Gosnell’s “house of horrors,” which received national attention, lawmakers took action across the country to end brutal late-term abortions last year. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which seeks to protect unborn babies capable of feeling pain beginning at 20 weeks, that is, more than halfway through pregnancy. This legislation has been passed by over a dozen states, and has been introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Lindsey Graham, with 41 co-sponsors.
Sen. Graham’s goal is simple: Force a vote prior to the 2014 mid-terms and put every Senator on record. Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, both vulnerable Democrats up for reelection, have already said they would vote against it. Other vulnerable senators, such as Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, have not taken a position.
Five national polls conducted in 2013 show overwhelming support for this legislation, especially among women, independents, young people, and Latinos.
This legislation will give the Republican party a new opportunity to identify senators who vote against this legislation as abortion extremists. By going on offense, Republicans can flip the war on women narrative on its head and put the other side on defense. Or they can continue, ironically, to curl up in the fetal position, let their own personal bias against social issues trump the data, and continue to lose. Time will tell which path they choose.
Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a nationwide network of more than 365,000 Americans dedicated to pursuing policies and electing candidates to reduce and ultimately end abortion.