The conventional wisdom is that abortion is a losing issue for the GOP in presidential races. Republican presidential candidates need to be pro-life in order to shore up their base, but their pro-life position alienates swing constituencies. So the best thing to do is downplay the issue as much as they can — talk about the economy or tax cuts or terrorism or whatever — and cross their fingers.
This is to be expected from political observers, since they overwhelmingly come from the media/commentariat class, which is overwhelmingly socially liberal. What is sad is that this view is also held by the vast majority of Republican political consultants, who also are overwhelmingly socially liberal, and who mainly identify with the establishment wing of the Republican Party, which typically cares little for social issues.
The problem with this view is that it's simply not true. Abortion is a winning issue for conservatives in presidential races, and the GOP nominee should go on offense on the issue.
First, let's take the only good argument for GOP candidates downplaying abortion: media bias. Journalists are almost universally pro-choice, as a landmark Los Angeles Times study found. Mainstream media coverage of the issue is consistently biased in favor of the pro-choice position.
But hey, the mainstream media is always going to be biased against conservative politicians. This argument is merely an argument for saying that the GOP presidential nominee should be a talented communicator, which should really go without saying.
Now for the political argument for going on the offense on abortion.
There are basically two planks to it.
The first is simply that Americans are more pro-life than the commentariat gives them credit for. Polling on abortion is tricky; given the complexity of the issue, answers will change wildly depending on how the question is phrased. However, one fact that is widely accepted and has held steady over many years, is that Americans are pretty evenly split between self-identifying as "pro-life" than "pro-choice."
Even more enticingly, there are three constituencies that are open to an anti-abortion message. Hispanics are more likely than the general U.S. population to support making abortion illegal. Women are more likely to say they are pro-choice according to the latest Gallup polling, but these things fluctuate and it certainly hasn't always been the case: as recently as 2012, Gallup showed more women identifying as pro-life. And millennials are far more amenable to the pro-life message than one might think.
These constituencies are crucial for the Democratic coalition. These are also less receptive to the GOP's economic message than white working and lower-middle-class men, who are typically the GOP's "kitchen table issues" voters.
You really don't have to be a grandmaster at political chess to see the obvious move. These are constituencies that the Democrats want and that the GOP needs. These are constituencies that are receptive to the GOP's pro-life message. So maybe the GOP should aim a pro-life message at them? Sometimes this politics stuff really is not that hard.
The other reason the GOP's presidential nominee should go on the offense on abortion is that the Democratic Party's abortion platform is extreme — and its likely presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is no exception. Democratic presidential candidates typically support abortion measures that a majority of Americans find extremely distasteful, like late-term abortions, federal abortion subsidies, abolishing parental notifications, and so on.
Now, of course, the media will never let voters know this. But this is all the more reason to turn the tables on them. That's what ads are for. That's what debate stages are for.
The next GOP presidential nominee should therefore adopt the following strategy. First, he or she should give a speech that, while emphasizing his or her strong pro-life views, acknowledges the profound division of Americans on the issue and commits to only supporting abortion restrictions that are supported by a majority of the public.
Then, he or she should attack Hillary Clinton for her extreme positions on abortion. Phrases like "in the pocket of the multibillion dollar Planned Parenthood abortion business" should be used as a matter of course. The key is to refuse to back down or prevaricate during the ensuing media firestorm: the GOP candidate is the moderate candidate on abortion, but Hillary Clinton has extreme positions on abortion, and the American people have a right to know it. The GOP may lose the media cycle, but win the hearts and minds of pro-life voters — many of whom are swing voters.
Going on the offense on abortion is the right political move for the GOP and its next candidate. Oh, and it also happens to be the right thing.