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Heather Higgins Opinion: Why GOP’s Abortion Messaging Isn’t Working

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Many have dismissed abortion as causal in crushing the anticipated 2022 red wave. But after GOP election losses earlier this month, it’s being widely cited, yet most can’t tell you why Republican efforts didn’t work as well as hoped, particularly where they were advocating for more moderate, majority-popular approaches like the 15-week limit with exceptions.

Two months ago, my firm, Suasion Insights, did a benchmark analysis of existing abortion messaging research and communications/ads in all the abortion-related 2022 and 2023 ballot initiatives. Here are some of the insights we gleaned:

1. The GOP pro-life strategy operates as though America still retains pre-Roe It ignores that while then extramarital sex was still scandalous and abortion shocking and rare, now sex is everywhere, women have seen abortion as a right for most women’s entire lifetimes, many have had or know others who have had abortions, and many view abortion as an important insurance policy they don’t want to lose.

2. The left’s argument against the GOP is based not on what candidates say but against what the GOP might do once they have the votes/power, as if to say, “Don’t trust them.” Their theme is that what GOP candidates say now is irrelevant. Conservative rhetoric and actions (e.g., a 6-week bill where there was already a 15-week bill) are fodder to reinforce the left’s contention.

3. Starting a statement with “I’m pro-life but” makes everything that follows suspect. “Pro-life” in the public mind overwhelmingly now means opposition to all abortions, no exceptions. The presumption, therefore, is that the candidate can’t be trusted to compromise and mean it – 15 weeks, even six weeks, can look like insincere political triage.

4. Empathy deficit: Until recently, pro-choice messaging acted as though there was no baby, and pro-life messaging acted as though there was no woman. That has changed – somewhat. Pro-choice messaging is generally deeply affecting – often women talking about the babies they wanted but couldn’t have. On the right, women are now featured – but only to the extent those women are “mothers” or mothers-to-be. For the pro-life side to make inroads on this issue, they will need to empathize with and win over women who are not mothers, who may not want to be mothers, or who define themselves as more than mothers.

5. On this issue, the left uses what is normally the right’s language, capturing the American impulse to have the freedom to choose: freedom; respecting other’s right to different choices; trusting people to make their own decisions; that this is between a patient and her doctor, not a politician; protecting our rights.

Further research will help us refine how to address the many messaging challenges both with most Americans as well as with the pro-life voter who wants a morally acceptable solution that gets the best long-term result. But there are predictions we can make now:

1. Anything you say may be used against you: GOP candidates should expect that anything and everything they have said, regardless of distance and context, will be plucked to paint them in the most extreme light.

2. Winning hearts and minds: Pro-lifers who don’t make their livings by pushing repeated attempts at extreme pro-life legislation realize that most Americans don’t share their views, and this is a counterproductive strategy. Just as it was with the abolition movement, they will first need to engage in cultural education, not legislative initiatives, save to the extent they have a clear majoritarian consensus.

3. What’s next? The GOP is seen as “taking away” what women have seen as their right for 50 years. That becomes cover for Democrats now implying that the GOP will also take away gay rights, contraception, social security, or whatever might be usefully scary.

4. The GOP needs an empathetic and credible narrative, not just a policy: What Tuesday reaffirmed was that the “magic bullet” of a good policy and soundbite for pro-life Republicans to advance a moderate policy position that in polling has majoritarian support (e.g., 15 weeks + exceptions) won’t be sufficient by itself, but needs to be supported by an empathetic and credible narrative. And it is a dual challenge: conservatives need to be believed by those who want some abortion options, and need their pro-life candidates to be comfortable with using that same narrative.

5. Differentiation: Whatever version of limits on later-term abortion the GOP pursues, the position will need a new name to differentiate it from the popular zero abortions/exceptions understanding of “pro-life.” Some options to test include “Value Both,” “Choice & Life,” “Common Ground,” and “Care for All.”

Most conservatives sympathize with the pro-life cause. Yet many are starting to see that advancing too extreme a position relative to the current comfort of the majority of Americans is a political suicide mission for both the GOP and the pro-life cause. It will jeopardize retaining their majority in the House and expanding it in the Senate.

Even worse for pro-lifers, fear of what the GOP might do is encouraging panicked voters who want at least some abortion options to feel they need to embed abortion rights in state constitutions, even if the language is extreme.

The current course of principled defeat will result in worse policies and severe setbacks not only for the pro-life cause but the entire conservative policy agenda. The question for the GOP is what it will take for the pro-life community to switch to a strategy of long-term incremental victory.

Heather Higgins is president of Suasion Insights. This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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