ANALYSIS: Will Talking Abortion Non-Stop Win Matt Bevin A Second Term?

Aug 23, 2019

Matt Bevin is talking about abortion non-stop in his re-election campaign. That’s a logical strategy in a state like Kentucky. But I’m skeptical that this approach will help him that much.

Let me start with why this approach is smart for Bevin. Kentucky has a lot of people who are anti-abortion. About 20 percent of Kentucky adults believe that abortion should be “illegal in all cases,” a number bigger than in all but five states, according to polling data released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute. (Only Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Nebraska, and Arkansas have a higher percentage of people opposed to all abortions. Twenty-three percent of people in Louisiana think abortion should be illegal in all cases, the highest of any state.)

Along with that 20 percent, another 31 percent of Kentuckians think abortion should be “illegal in most cases.” Put those numbers together and the number of anti-abortion Kentuckians (51 percent) is larger than the number of Kentuckians (43 percent) that generally favor abortion rights. (Twenty-seven percent of Kentuckians say abortion should be “legal in most cases,” 16 percent in all cases.)

Also, about 49 percent of Kentuckians identify as evangelical Christians, according to polling from the Pew Research Center. Only Tennessee has a larger percentage (52 percent). Evangelical Christians tend to be strongly opposed to abortion.

So talking about abortion has obvious benefits for Bevin. This approach will likely lock down his support among very conservative and anti-abortion Kentucky voters. Those voters may not like the governor’s personality but would not want to align with a candidate like Bevin’s opponent, Attorney General Andy Beshear, who supports abortion rights. And Bevin’s focus on abortion could mobilize conservative activists and organizations in the state, by making this election less about defending the governor and more about promoting the broader anti-abortion movement.

But I tend to think the benefits of talking about abortion so much are limited. Why? First, the real intense opponents of abortion (that 20 percent) are likely already aligned with Bevin and were going to vote for him no matter how often he talks about the issue.

Secondly, among the voters who might be choosing between the two candidates, I doubt Bevin is introducing much new information to them. Most voters in Kentucky probably assumed that Beshear is more supportive of abortion rights than Bevin. Beshear is a member of the Democratic Party, which is the party of people who support abortion rights, and his father, the former two-term governor of the state, was an abortion rights supporter.

Thirdly, I’m somewhat skeptical that voters in more rural areas of the Kentucky (and the South broadly) are as focused on abortion and (unwilling to back pro-abortion rights candidates) as sometimes is suggested.

Abortion May Not Be A Deal-Breaker…But Being A Democrat May Be

Over the last two decades, the Democratic Party has become very unified around supporting abortion rights and opposing limits to abortion. The Republican Party is similarly unified around opposing abortion rights. There are now very few anti-abortion rights Democrats or pro-abortion rights Republicans serving in Congress. Also, over the last two decades, Republicans have gained ground in the rural areas and the South in particular.

I’m sure that some one-time Democratic voters have moved to the GOP side just because of abortion. But just because the Republicans have gained ground in the South during the same period that abortion became more of a party-line issue doesn’t mean abortion policy is causing that change. In fact, the parties have shifted in a bunch of other important ways over the last decades: the Democratic Party has a lot more non-Christians, people of color and college graduates than two decades ago, but not the Republicans. The Democrats have become the party of urban America, the GOP of rural America.

It seems more likely that abortion is part of a broader set of cultural issues that has separated the South and rural America from the Democratic Party than abortion being the only reason or even the most important one. So my theory is that being pro-abortion rights is not necessarily a deal-breaker for Kentucky voters. But being a Democrat might be a deal-breaker, as the state becomes increasingly Republican.

If Bevin, instead of saying “abortion” seven times in a video attacking Beshear, as he did recently, had said, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” “sanctuary cities,” or “liberal,” I suspect he would have accomplished the same goal — linking Beshear to the broader national Democratic Party, which many Kentuckians are skeptical of.

Bevin talking about abortion so much does not change the core dynamics of this election so much as reinforce them. Can Beshear position himself as not “that kind of Democrat” to Kentucky voters would never back say, Ocasio-Cortez, but might be open to a fairly centrist white man whose dad was governor? Or will Bevin make up for his very high disapproval ratings by successfully painting Beshear as a left-wing national Democrat associated with the broader party on a lot of cultural issues, including abortion?

Perry Bacon Jr. is a national political writer based in Louisville. You can reach him via Twitter or e-mail.

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