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From the Center

When the dust settles after next year’s election, it’s entirely possible that Samuel Alito will have helped secure a second term in office for Joe Biden.

Not intentionally, of course. The long-time conservative Supreme Court Justice would be unlikely to do anything to help a Democratic candidate for any office, let alone a president who would have the power to appoint potential court colleagues (or his successor). But Alito was the driving force behind the overturn of Roe vs Wade last June, and as we approach the one-year anniversary of that seminal decision, we are still coming to understand the dramatic impact it has had on the nation’s political landscape.

For most of the 21st century, Americans had been split fairly evenly on whether they considered themselves to be pro-choice, but the issues of abortion and judicial appointments tended to be much greater motivators for conservative voters. Even after the eleventh hour appointment of Amy Coney Barrett after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in the weeks before the 2020 election, exit polls showed that more Republicans than Democrats mentioned these topics as their reason for voting.

But since the Dobbs decision removed the nationwide protections for legal abortions, the balance between pro-choice and pro-life voters has shifted dramatically in favor of abortion rights supporters. After the court acted, the electorate no longer regarded abortion as a purely philosophical question but as a much more practical one. Knowing that their preferences could now have real-world impact, they have moved to support abortion rights by a sizable margin.

Most voters do want to see some restrictions in place. Polls suggest that they seem to have settled on roughly a fifteen-week threshold for states to enact. But while Democratic candidates quickly embraced an unadulterated pro-choice position, Republicans have become mired in internal debates about the advisability of a national ban and much more stringent limits at the state level. As a result, Democrats escaped an all-out disaster in last year’s midterm elections and have since won significant victories in special elections and ballot initiatives on historically conservative turf.

Some Republicans are trying to find safer ground. Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley delivered a speech calling for a collaborative approach on the issue, which vanished without a trace. Pro-life legislators in deep-red South Carolina and Nebraska have resisted uncompromising bills in their states sponsored by their own party. Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo last week signed new abortion protections for out-of-state patients into law.

But as the presidential election begins to heat up, the GOP’s field of candidates is still struggling with the issue. Donald Trump offended pro-life voters last year when he suggested that the Dobbs decision did contribute to Republican defeats, and has indicated that the six-week abortion ban that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has signed into law is too strict. DeSantis did talk about the ban on his visit to Iowa, where roughly two-thirds of Republican caucus-goers identify as religious conservatives. But otherwise he avoids the topic. With the exception of Haley’s speech, former Vice President Mike Pence, whose prospects rest almost entirely on support from evangelical Christians, is the only candidate who talks about it unless specifically asked.

But simply pretending that the issue doesn’t exist is not a sustainable strategy. It will be exceedingly difficult for any Republican aspirant not to be dragged to the right by the need to attract conservative support in the primaries. And it will be even harder to then pivot for a general election audience with a sufficiently reassuring message for swing voters, especially the married suburban women who play such an outsized role in key swing states.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that the issue of undocumented immigration had the potential to be political poison for the Democrats next year. It’s clear that abortion could be just as toxic for Republicans. In both cases, the parties are confronted with a deep divide between their most loyal and ideologically intense supporters on one hand and the centrist voters who decide close elections on the other.  Both face a potentially unsolvable dilemma as they try to reconcile such fundamental differences on two such emotional issues.

The decision is a wrenching one. Democratic candidates who adopt more restrictive immigration measures risk angering their party’s most progressive voters. Republicans who attempt a more tolerant approach on abortion policy will infuriate their most conservative supporters. It’s possible that the party which enrages their best friends most will elect the next president.

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Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).