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.