Abortion Politics, April ’09

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Since the outbreak of the Great Notre Dame Invitation War, there has been a certain journalistic impulse to discern political consequences in President Obama’s pro-choice words and deeds, with the focus on Catholics. GOP partisan Michael Gerson was out of the blocks two weeks ago with a column contending that Obama’s Catholic support was faltering. At the end of last week, Time‘s Amy Sullivan delivered herself of a piece titled, “Catholic Democrats: Is Their Support Fraying?” The answer, actually, is no.

Here’s the problem, journalistically speaking. There is no evidence that the Catholic vote for president is affected by a candidate’s position on abortion. Yet you can’t just tell your editor that it makes no difference to rank-and-file Catholics that a bunch of bishops are het up over the president’s abortion moves, or she’ll want to know why the hell you’re writing the story in the first place.

This morning, Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown took the inside-the-Beltway track, reporting on an increase in activity among the anti-abortion organizations in DC–not exactly stop-the-presses news. To her credit, Brown notes:

In a poll released last week, Obama’s disapproval ratings among
Catholic and Protestant voters rose between February and April, but it
was consistent with an increase in dissatisfaction among all voters.
The fluctuation among white evangelicals was more severe, according to
the survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. A 31 percent
disapproval rating in February jumped to 47 percent in April, making it
one of the steeper spikes among demographic groups.

Even this bespeaks the kind of slight massaging that journalists do when the statistics don’t really support the storyline. The truly honest way to put it would have been:

Obama’s approval rating among Catholic and Protestant voters rebounded in April after a drop from February to March, suggesting that the president’s abortion positions have thus far had little if any effect on voters’ opinions. The only faith group that might be paying attention are the evangelicals, whose approval of Mr. Obama has experienced a steady decline since January.

I’m inclined to doubt that last surmise as well, however. Look at it this way. Obama won 47 percent of white Catholic voters; as of this month, 56 percent of them approve his performance, for a net of +9 percentage points. Among white evangelicals, the numbers are 24, 37, +13. White Mainline Protestants are 44, 54, +10. And for all whites, the numbers are 43, 55, +12.

In sum, Obama’s approval rating for each major white religious grouping is currently about 10 points higher than that group’s vote for him in November–exactly what the margin is for white people as a whole. In conclusion, Obama’s moves on abortion have not had any discernible effect on his support among voters presumed to care most about that issue.