The 2024 Elections: How to Win the Messaging War on Abortion

By Karen Cross, NRL Political Director

Editor’s note. This just appeared on page one of the August issue of NRL News. Please share with your pro-life family and friends.

The prevailing media narrative heading into the 2024 elections is that advocating for the right to life is a proverbial albatross around the necks of pro-life Republican candidates, one which will weigh them down or even cost them in key contests, including the presidential race. This is certainly the storyline that pro-abortion Democrats like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would like to see play out. Many Democrats are confident that they can ride the issue of abortion to four more years in the White House and use it to make gains in the House and Senate. Some Republicans are already throwing in the towel on the issue and urging others in their party to do the same. But it does not have to be this way. Pro-life candidates can win in 2024 by learning from the 2022 elections and adopting the right messaging on this issue.

Polling shows that support for unlimited abortion for any reason throughout pregnancy, the position held by President Biden, Vice President  Harris, and most Congressional Democrats, remains a minority view, even within their own party. Just 32% of registered Democrats say they support abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy, according to a January 2023 Marist poll. The same survey also found that 49% of Democrats support at least some protections for unborn children and their mothers. Additionally, a May 2023 Gallup poll found that 15% of registered Democrats identify themselves as “pro-life.”

These numbers indicate a disconnect between the Democratic Party establishment which supports abortion without limits and a sizable number of registered Democrat voters who either identify themselves “pro-life” or who support at least some protections for unborn babies while not claiming the “pro-life” label. This offers an opening for pro-life Republican candidates.

This disconnect is likely even more pronounced in states with long histories of electing pro-life Democrats. This includes states like Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi, which have statewide offices on the ballot this fall, and states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia, which will play important roles in 2024 in determining which party will control the Senate and/or who inhabits the White House.

The pro-abortion absolutist view has even less support among Independents. According to the January 2023 Marist poll, just 20% of Independents support a policy of unlimited abortion for any reason until birth. Meanwhile 70% support at least some protections for unborn children and their mothers.

It is worth recalling that the last two presidential elections came down to just a couple thousand votes across a handful of key battleground states. And in 2020 and 2022, several Congressional races came down to a couple hundred votes. Or, in the case of pro-life Iowa Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks’ 2020 election, just 6 votes!

A Pew Research survey in October 2022 found that 75% of registered Democrat voters rated the issue of abortion as “very important” in their election decisions. The same survey from March 2022, before the Dobbs decision, showed just 46%. The survey found that, both before and after Dobbs, about 40% of Republican voters rated the issue as “very important.” 51% of all voters who cast ballots in 2022 said abortion affected the way they voted according to a McLaughlin poll conducted after the elections.

Following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling, many pro-abortion Democrats seized upon the abortion issue and wielded it to their advantage in the 2022 elections by fomenting a climate of uncertainty, misinformation, and fear. Democrats falsely claimed that women would no longer be able to receive medical treatment for miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies and those who have abortions would be put in jail. They characterized even the most modest pro-life bills as draconian and strategically pivoted the focus of the debate to abortions in cases of rape and incest, even though less than 5% of all abortions take place under those tragic circumstances. Democrats painted Republican candidates as heartless, out of touch, and extreme.

In 2022, while pro-abortion Democrats went on offense and galvanized their supporters, many Republicans tried to dodge or hide from the issue of abortion altogether. Some Republican Congressional candidates attempted to shirk the responsibilities of the office for which they were running by claiming that there is no role for federal government in setting abortion policy. (For NRLC’s statement on the federal role on abortion click here.)

In many of these cases, Republican candidates handed their opponents a golden opportunity to fill the void with pro-abortion talking points. Instead of challenging false claims, defending their voting records, clarifying their positions, and holding their opponents accountable for their own extremism on the issue, these Republicans essentially ceded the issue to Democrats.   

By and large, pro-life Republicans who succeeded in the 2022 elections did not raise a white flag when confronted on abortion. Nowhere was this seen as clearly as in the gubernatorial elections. Pro-life governors in swing states who had signed protections for unborn children and their mothers persevered against Democrat attacks on abortion because they were proactive about defending their records and not afraid to call out their opponents. Some notable examples were Governor Brian Kemp in Georgia, Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida, Governor Kim Reynolds in Iowa, Governor Mike DeWine in Ohio, and Governor Greg Abbott in Texas, all of whom won re-election by double-digit margins (with the exception of Kemp who won by 7.5%).

Pro-life candidates must be strategic about which issues to bring to the fore. By all early indications, pro-abortion Democrats aim to employ their 2022 strategy all over again. “I think it’ll continue to be a really galvanizing issue, and we’ll continue to find ways to make it front and center,” Biden campaign manager Julie Chávez Rodríguez told POLITICO in June. This will likely involve a concentration on abortions in cases of rape or incest, spreading misinformation like the false claim that women will not be able to access non-abortion-related healthcare or medications due to protections for unborn children, and raising the specter of a “national ban on abortion.”

There are several key issues where pro-life candidates have the high ground in terms of public opinion. Consistently, Americans do not support the use of their tax dollars to pay for abortions.A November 2022 poll conducted nationwide by McLaughlin and Associates found 60% opposed to tax dollars being used to pay for abortions. The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (H.R. 7) is a top priority bill for National Right to Life (NRLC). It is not only popular, but it would also save lives. The Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, another priority bill for NRLC, would ensure that infants born alive during failed abortion attempts are afforded the same degree of medical care as any other child born at the same gestation. This commonsense legislation puts pro-abortion candidates in the very uncomfortable position of having to reject basic medical care for newborn babies. Pro-life candidates also have an advantage when discussing parental involvement. A July 2022 Rasmussen Reports poll found 61% oppose abortions being performed on minors without a parent’s knowledge.

Pro-life candidates should call out pro-abortion Democrats for their support for the so-called Women’s Health Protection Act, a radical federal bill that would enshrine unlimited abortion in federal law and strike down virtually all state-level protections for unborn children and their mothers. Despite Democrats claiming the bill would merely “codify Roe,” in fact, it would go way beyond the 1973 Supreme Court case by tearing down protections with broad public support like parental involvement and informed consent laws.

Pro-life candidates, and ultimately, vulnerable unborn children and their mothers, will not benefit from the push for the so-called “national ban” on abortion, a bill that would ostensibly limit abortions after 15 weeks gestation. The reality is that 95% of abortions occur prior to 15 weeks gestation and the remaining 5% could fall under the bill’s exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother. Additionally, such a bill, which needs 60 votes in the Senate, has no chance of passing anytime soon. Even if pro-life Republicans were to win every swing-state Senate seat in 2024, they would still fall short of the 60-vote threshold. Democrats are eager to exploit this so-called “national ban” as a focal point in their campaigns because they know how politically toxic it is for Republicans.

Pro-life candidates would do best not to be drawn into purity tests or litmus tests put forth by various organizations. While well-meaning in many cases, these tests can ultimately force a candidate to alienate their base in order to appeal to the broader electorate, or they can force candidates to double down on untenable positions limiting their ability to win. At the same time, all of this provides their opponents with ammunition for attack ads.  

Pro-life candidates need to demonstrate to voters that not only are they against a policy of unlimited abortion for any reason, but they also support positive alternatives to abortion and stand with women and girls who find themselves facing unexpected pregnancies. They should familiarize themselves with pregnancy help centers in their states or districts. Nationwide, there are over 3,000 of these centers which offer pregnant women the compassion, support, and resources they need in order to make life-affirming decisions.

Pro-life candidates should also be mindful that the debate over abortion is not merely a discussion of laws and policies. There is a deeply personal dimension to this issue that sets it apart from other political issues. When presenting their pro-life views, candidates should not shy away from sharing how they came to believe what they do. Impactful are personal experiences of parenthood, adoption or foster care, volunteering at a pregnancy help center, or seeing ultrasound images of babies in the womb.

By showing the human dimension to their views, pro-life candidates can also help to reverse the public perception that pro-abortion Democrats are better suited to address the abortion issue. An April 2023 NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll found that Democrats are more trusted than Republicans on handling the issue of abortion. (41% say Democrats and 25% say Republicans. A quarter say neither party, and another 1 in 10 said both parties are the same or weren’t sure.

What most political campaigns come down to is messaging. A candidate could have the perfect resume, a deep knowledge of the issues, and all the right endorsements, but if they cannot effectively communicate their vision and persuade voters, they will lose. What pro-life candidates need to do as soon as possible is study the Democrat abortion playbook, learn the right lessons from the 2022 elections, and employ effective messaging.