WASHINGTON – In his quest for re-election, President Obama and his campaign have gone against historical precedent and perhaps conventional wisdom by opting to make abortion a major theme in television campaign ads – something no Democratic nominee has ever done in a general election.
The Obama campaign launched its third abortion-focused TV campaign ad in mid-August, criticizing the pro-life views of presumptive Republican nominees Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. In two of the three ads, a narrator reminds the audience that “Romney supports overturning Roe vs. Wade.” Obama is pro-choice and supports Roe.
All three ads have run in battleground states, according to Politico.com.
Typically, TV ads for presidential candidates focus on themes that can draw bipartisan support – the economy, health care and education, for instance. The Obama campaign’s focus on abortion is unprecedented. Baptist Press watched every Democratic nominee’s television ads, from 1976-2008 – that is, post-Roe v. Wade – and found that only one other campaign (Bill Clinton’s, 1996) discussed abortion in an ad, and that reference (“choice”) came in a TV ad that discussed several issues. (Baptist Press watched the ads on livingroomcandidate.org and pcl.stanford.edu/campaigns, two websites that archive campaign TV ads.)
The Obama campaign in 2008 did run a radio ad that spotlighted abortion, but it did not have a TV counterpart. Also, outside groups such as Planned Parenthood – the nation’s largest abortion provider – have run TV ads in the past supporting Democratic candidates while spotlighting abortion. But a presidential candidate’s own campaign never has gone this far in focusing on abortion.
“The Obama campaign is being much more aggressive in campaigning on abortion and using the issue to motivate their base,” Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, told Baptist Press. “We have not seen this kind of campaigning coming from a presidential campaign before. Most presidential campaigns over the years have talked about jobs and health care and other things. The Obama campaign apparently has decided that the only way they are going to get their liberal base excited and motivated and working is to attack Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan on the abortion issue.”
Politico and other news organizations say the Obama campaign is trying to drive up support for the president among female voters. But Tobias believes the ads could also serve to unify pro-life voters. After all, some in the pro-life community have been skeptical of Romney, and the ads remind them of his pro-life views.
In the latest Obama ad, a narrator says, “Both Romney and Ryan back proposals to outlaw abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. For women, for president, the choice is ours.” The first two ads made the same claim. Independent fact checking websites say Romney opposes abortion, but not in cases of rape and incest – an identical position to Ronald Reagan and both Bush presidents, the last three pro-life occupants of the White House. Ryan does oppose abortion in such cases, but his position would not be the position of the administration, Romney campaign officials have said.
The first abortion-themed ad, launched in early July, stated, “Every woman who believes decisions about our bodies and our health care should be our own is troubled Mitt Romney supports overturning Roe v. Wade.” Romney does oppose Roe.
All three TV ads – along with a fourth one that doesn’t mention abortion – blast Romney for wanting to pull federal funding for Planned Parenthood. The ads also criticize Romney for his opposition to requiring that employers cover contraceptives. Romney does oppose requiring companies to offer contraceptives, a stance partially based on his belief that it violates religious liberty. Some of the contraceptives that are required to be covered under the new health care law can cause chemical abortions.
Most of Obama’s TV ads in 2008 focused on the economy. The ads of the 2004 Democratic nominee, John Kerry, spotlighted the Iraq war, jobs and health care. In 2000, Al Gore’s ads discussed issues such as the debt, Social Security and Medicare. President Clinton’s ads in 1992 and 1996 mostly stayed focused on the economy. The one exception was a 1996 TV ad that tied GOP nominee Bob Dole to then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The ad, which did not have a narrator, displayed the positions of Dole and Gingrich with words on the screen that changed every few seconds. The phrase, “Dole-Gingrich against a woman’s right to choose,” appeared on the screen, but so did, at various points in the ad, their positions on the minimum wage, the family leave act and college scholarships. Abortion also was not mentioned in TV ads by Jimmy Carter (1976, 1980), Walter Mondale (1984) or Michael Dukakis (1988), all Democratic nominees.
“All women are not pro-choice,” Tobias of National Right to Life said. “The country right now is fairly evenly divided on whether or not abortion should be legal. Women are probably evenly divided as well. By President Obama so publicly using this issue, he may motivate some of his supporters, but he is getting pro-lifers activated and motivated. They want to see him out of office. The more he campaigns on it … the harder pro-lifers are going to work.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.)