Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's positioning on abortion puts him on a political tightrope. But — especially given his alternatives — it may be a less shaky one than conventional wisdom suggests.
While most Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) oppose legal abortion, it isn't a make-or-break issue for all of them. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier this year, 23 percent of leaned Republicans said there's no chance they could vote for Giuliani given his past support for legal abortion and gay civil unions. But that means 77 percent are still available to him.
That -- plus a recognition of the hazard of backpedaling on a position of principle -- may inform his calculation.
There are other elements. While Giuliani's position is very likely to damage him among evangelical Protestants and other social conservatives, it could help him with other, more socially moderate Republicans. The hazard is if those anti-abortion Republicans, who tend to give the issue higher importance, organize to oppose Giuliani, coalesce around an opposing candidate and boost their turnout. On the other hand, if Giuliani motivates more Republican moderates to vote, the balance could shift in his favor.
That's not an easy task, but Giuliani has a big enough favorability halo; if anyone can do it, he can.
It should also be noted that Republicans are majority anti-abortion, but not monolithically so. In the 2000 New Hampshire Republican primary (which admittedly draws a lot of independents), 52 percent said abortion should be always or mostly legal; fewer, 43 percent, said it should be generally illegal.
South Carolina Republicans (with their substantial numbers of conservatives and evangelicals) went the other way -- a sizable majority, 58 percent, said abortion should be always or mostly illegal. But across the 11 Super Tuesday states in 2000, Republican voters divided almost exactly evenly -- 47 percent said abortion should be generally legal; 48 percent, generally illegal.
Indeed overall, in the 18 states where we have exit poll data from the 2000 Republican primaries, majorities either favored legal abortion, or voters divided on the issue, in exactly half; majorities opposed legal abortion in the other nine.
We might not expect to see Giuliani spending a lot of time in Utah or Missouri. But in other states -- including those where majorities oppose legal abortion -- the question is not only the voters' position on the issue, but its salience in their vote choice.
More broadly, in a recent ABC/Post national poll, Republicans opposed legal abortion by an 18-point margin, while independents favored it by 15 points, Democrats by 36. Put together, among all Americans, there was a14-point margin in favor of legal abortion. That's about the same as it's been for years.
But our analysis pointed out that there's much less polarization on abortion than we've seen in the past -- a move toward moderation, with fewer people saying it should be either legal, or illegal, in all cases. That, too, may fit Giuliani's strategy.
A final element is how Giuliani casts his position. Views on abortion are highly conditional, not easily captured in an overall support/oppose question. There are cases (e.g. rape) in which support for legal abortion is enormous. There are others (e.g. solely to end an unwanted pregnancy) in which most oppose the procedure. The health of the mother is an issue. So is the perceived right for a woman to act privately, with her doctor's consultation; yet so too are moral objections about terminating a pregnancy.
All these make abortion less a black-and-white issue and more a question of competing sentiments for many Americans. On this tightrope, Rudy Giuliani does not stand alone.