Marlene Turnbach is a pro-life Democrat from Hazelton, Pa., who twice voted for George W. Bush over abortion. As she told me a couple of years ago when I interviewed her for a book on women voters, “Bush won because all my friends who are Democrats voted for him and put abortion over everything else.” Though only about 13 percent of those likely to turn out at the polls are true single-issue pro-life voters, I met a surprising number of women, most of them Catholic, who said that they did not expect the Democratic Party to switch its basic position on Roe v. Wade but nonetheless felt increasingly marginalized and unwelcome in the party as dissenters from party orthodoxy on that one issue.
And now? Not so much. With the economy in freefall, abortion opponents afraid even to peek at their third-quarter 401(k) statements suddenly see their way around this obstacle on their road home to the Democrats. In Turnbach’s state, where one-third of all voters are Catholic (and six in 10 Catholics describe themselves as pro-life), pro-choice Barack Obama is nonetheless ahead of John McCain, who opposes abortion rights, by 12 points in one poll and 14 in another. At a rally in Johnstown, Pa., on Saturday, Sarah Palin all but pleaded with pro-life voters to give her party one more chance to deliver on 35 years of pro-life promises: “In times like these with wars and financial crisis, I know that it may be easy to forget even as deep and abiding a concern as the right to life, and it seems that our opponent kind of hopes you will forget that.” Yet when I checked back in with Turnbach and others, it was clear that for them social issues are off the table, at least for now.
It isn’t that Turnbach’s stand on abortion has shifted any, she says. But her view of the Republican Party’s commitment to seeing Roe overturned has: “Even if McCain does get in, he’s not going to do anything” that would lead to a reversal of Roe. The legality of abortion “is not going to change,” she’s concluded, “and I really don’t think it should be an issue” in this presidential race.
Like others who told me they had based their vote on the single issue of abortion the last two times around, Turnbach’s says her ‘08 calculus takes other matters—like the economy, the economy and the economy—into account: “McCain was on my nerves the other night, prancing around” at the debate in Nashville, she says, while Obama” strikes her as “level-headed, intelligent, and someone who doesn’t fly off the handle; I like him.” Age is another strike against McCain in her view: “McCain is so old,” says Turnbach, who is retired. “If he passed away, we’d have someone so inexperienced it’s scary.” Most of her pro-life friends who went for Bush in 2000 and 2004 are also Obama grandmamas now, she says, including one who is really sweating the switch but “doesn’t think McCain is mentally stable.”
In the past, I’ve tried to make the case that Democrats could pick up some votes just by being less insulting to people who disagree with them—on abortion and more generally. Mostly, the response has been “screw you, dumb troll, and what do you mean we’re insulting?” (That’s the PG-rated version.) Last year, I argued in an op-ed in the New York Times that the Democratic Party could win back some pro-life voters with a more tolerant attitude towards those who break with party orthodoxy on abortion. Contrary to the exciting headline on the piece, I never argued that “Pro-Choice Is a Bad Choice for Democrats” but, instead, said it shouldn’t be the only possible choice for Democrats in good standing. But now, the whole argument has effectively been put on hold in a time of crisis.
Most of the women I talked to who voted for Bush over abortion and are supporting Obama this time didn’t want their names used because they didn’t want to be thought of as defectors, particularly at church. In some cases, they fear being barred from receiving communion; Doug Kmiec, the conservative pro-life law professor, was denied the sacrament this summer after he announced in Slate that he was for Obama.
Even Turnbach’s friend Nancy Gilgannon, a pro-life Pennsylvania Democrat who voted for Bush and is voting for McCain this year, says that abortion has nothing to do with her decision this time around. Two years ago, she told me she blamed her church for Bush’s election—and felt she’d been conned into voting for him: “It was the church’s fault … I talked to several priests and they all said, ‘There’s only one issue in this election.’ I said, ‘What about the poor, and Social Security?’ And they said, ‘There is only one issue.’ Oh, it was hard to push that button for Bush; I think I was just used, and that’s what really grinds me.”
Now what she says is “I never did like George Bush, and he’s turned out to be a disaster I contributed to.” Still, she’s voting Republican again this year because the lesson she takes from the failures of the Bush presidency is that experience in national politics is everything. And McCain has more of it. “George Bush didn’t have enough experience, and look what happened. Obama has two years in the Senate and two years campaigning,” and that’s not enough, especially given “the mess we’re in now.” Gilgannon, who is a retired college professor, voted for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, and also influencing her is the feeling that Obama treated Hillary and Bill Clinton poorly: “He made the Clintons out to be racists, and that didn’t sit well with me; he really threw her in the garbage can.”
Another friend of Gilgannon and Turnbach who voted for Bush twice, Liz Tarone, says the last eight years have convinced her that abortion and other social issues should be off the table for good. She went for Bush last time because she couldn’t stomach John Kerry, but she now thinks “Iraq will go down as the worst political decision of the century, worse than Vietnam.” She doesn’t like either Obama or McCain. So she plans not to vote for president this year (though she will turn out to vote “against every incumbent on the ballot”). These days, just the mention of abortion or gay marriage by a politician makes her want to scream: In the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, she says, “I don’t want to hear about questions for which there are no answers.”
After 35 years of fighting over Roe, even some of the most convinced combatants are ready for a cease-fire.