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Voters' ambivalence should push Democrats to center

Abortion has received almost no attention in the Democratic presidential debates to this point because there is nothing interesting to report on the issue. All the Democratic presidential candidates take strong pro-choice positions.

Why are the Democrats so united? The answer lies in electoral calculations. Where the electorate consists of two large groups taking opposing positions on an issue, parties maximize votes by moving to the center of one of these two groups. Abortion seems to be such an issue.

But is this view of the electorate really accurate? Whenever public opinion polls offer respondents more than two choices, a very large middle group emerges. When a May 2007 CBS News/New York Times poll asked respondents whether abortions should be generally available, available under stricter limits, or not permitted, 37 percent opted for the middle position.

Similarly, a May 2007 Gallup poll asked whether abortions should always be legal, sometimes legal, or always illegal. Given this slightly different question wording, fully 55 percent opted for the middle position.

Whenever voters are distributed like a bell curve, with the majority of voters in the middle, rational parties will converge to the electoral center.

Seeking a middle ground on abortion is not just good politics. It is also good public policy. While both pro-choice and pro-life issue activists tend to treat the abortion issue as if it were one-sided, in reality it requires policy-makers to find some defensible balance between the rights of the mother and the rights of the fetus.

What would such a balance look like? From 1993 to 2000, an organization called the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice fostered a dialogue between pro-life and pro-choice activists. The goal of the project was to reduce polarization on the abortion issue by getting the parties to the conflict to talk to each other in a spirit of mutual respect.

Despite their strong differences, pro-choice and pro-life activists were able to agree on the need to do more to prevent teen pregnancy, to increase the options (including adoption) available to pregnant women, to reduce social pressures and economic conditions that make abortion more likely and to prevent outbreaks of violence aimed at abortion providers.

Democratic presidential contenders should call for a renewal of this dialogue within the party. While Democratic activists tend to be pro-choice, public opinion polls suggest that two out of every five rank-and-file Democrats are pro-life. Moreover, the 2006 midterm election brought more pro-life Democrats to both the House and Senate. The Democratic Party would advance its electoral interests and provide a real service to the nation by fostering civil and mutually respectful discussion of this issue within the party.

Michael Hayes is professor of political science at Colgate University and a member of Democrats for Life of New York.

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