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The Trump Effect: he’s made the likes of Marco Rubio look sane

That Marco Rubio - to the right not just of Mitt Romney but of Rick Santorum - is considered the establishment choice will be the lasting legacy of Trump. 

By jonathan Jones

“Anybody with that position will get creamed.” That’s what South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham thinks, not about Donald Trump’s call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, but rather the opposition of a number of the other Republican presidential candidates to allowing abortion in cases of rape or incest.

Graham was responding specifically to a question about Marco Rubio’s position, though he pointed out that the Florida Senator hadn’t been particularly clear what his position is. “You’re 44 years old. You need to tell us what you think about this,” he said, before setting out two specific questions for his competitor: “Would you veto a bill that had an exception for rape or incest?” or “probably a better question”: “Would you sign a bill that had no exception for rape or incest?”

After Graham made a fiery speech on the same topic to the Republican Jewish Coalition (this time directed mainly at Texas Senator Ted Cruz rather than Rubio), Vox published an interesting piece by Andrew Prokop calling it “The far-right position that could doom Marco Rubio in the general election”. Prokop says that Rubio “seems like the reasonable, electable choice that the establishment should love” before calling his opposition to rape and incest exceptions the “one potential land mine where he’s far more conservative than every recent GOP presidential nominee and the vast majority of Americans”. It follows a recent New Yorker article by Evan Osnos that called it Rubio’s “most obvious vulnerability”.

Rubio has since clarified his position in an interview with AP:

AP: “Do you support exceptions when the life of the mother is in jeopardy?”

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Rubio: “I do. For life of the mother, absolutely. And what I’ve said on the exceptions is: I as President will sign a bill that has exceptions. I’ve supported bills that have exceptions, because I’m in favour of any bill that saves lives. But I do not personally require a bill to have exceptions – other than life of the mother – in order for me to support it. But I will sign a bill as President that has exceptions.”

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So Rubio’s answers to Graham would appear to be:

No, I don’t think a woman who is pregnant as a result of rape or incest should be able to get an abortion.


No, I wouldn’t veto a bill that had an exception for rape or incest.


Yes, I would sign a bill that had no exception for rape or incest.

In other words, Rubio’s prepared to compromise in pursuit of abortion limits, but he does oppose exceptions for rape and incest. Paul Waldman has rounded up all the Republican candidates’ positions on this issue at the Washington Post, finding Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum also opposed.

So how far out of step with the American public is such a position? Two recent polls on the issue – by Quinnipiac University and CNN/ORC in August – found that 78 to 80 per cent of voters think abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest, with just 17 to 18 per cent agreeing with Rubio, Cruz, Carson, Huckabee and Santorum. NORC’s General Social Survey has found support for allowing abortion in such cases to be fairly steady over the last four decades, fluctuating between 73 per cent and 83 per cent. Even Republican voters support it by a two-to-one margin.

But should we be surprised to find Rubio holding such a conservative position on this issue? Is it really the “one potential land mine” for an otherwise “reasonable, electable choice that the establishment should love”, as Prokop put it? Not really.

Based on analysis of Rubio’s public statements, places him further to the right on social issues than any of the other Republican candidates except Rick Santorum, and finds him embodying the “hard-core conservative” position on eight of the ten social issues it examines. His voting record makes him the twelfth most conservative current Senator, and the 71st most conservative member of Congress (out of 300 Republicans). FiveThirtyEight’s index (which combines OnTheIssues’ ratings, congressional voting records and an analysis of fundraising sources) places Rubio as the third most conservative presidential candidate still in the race – after Ted Cruz and Rand Paul – and more conservative than every Republican nominee since Barry Goldwater in 1964.

What should perhaps be surprising, then, is not that Marco Rubio holds an extremely conservative position on abortion, but that someone as conservative as Rubio generally is considered a plausible “establishment choice” to be the Republican nominee. Not only is he more conservative than any nominee since Goldwater, but the FiveThirtyEight index rates him more conservative than many who’ve recently run as a more conservative alternative to the eventual nominee: Mike Huckabee (in 2008) and Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry (all in 2012).

In part, this reflects the Republican Party’s on-going march rightward, demonstrated by surveys of its voters and the votes of their representatives in Congress. But it also reflects the impact Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz are having on the race. Thanks to their presence at the top of the polls and the centre of the debate stages, a very conservative candidate like Rubio can seem relatively moderate simply by not calling for a ban on Muslims entering the US, suggesting that gun control was to blame for the Holocaust or leading efforts to shutdown the federal government over the Affordable Care Act and Planned Parenthood.

As a result, it seems entirely possible that Republicans will, in 2016, nominate a presidential candidate who’s more conservative than George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan – including when it comes to opposing allowing abortion in cases of rape and incest. PredictWise gives a 62 per cent chance of such a nominee (42 per cent Rubio, 20 per cent Cruz). In his last set of “subjective odds” before last month’s GOP debate, Nate Silver gave them a collective 64 per cent chance (45 per cent Rubio, 10 per cent Cruz, 6 per cent Carson and 1 per cent apiece for Huckabee, Paul and Santorum).

And would they stand no chance in the general election, as Graham predicts? It would clearly by absurd to say that the chances of Rubio – or any of the others – winning given that they win the nomination are actually zero. Rubio actually has one of the better claims to electability of all the 2016 candidates after John Kasich: he has recently won election to statewide office in a big swing-state, and his favorability ratings are pretty good. But a decent rule of thumb is: the more extreme the candidate, the less electable they are. In this sense, Rubio’s conservatism would count against him in the general election.

But what about abortion, specifically? Graham’s fears about “losing young women in droves” recall both the long-standing gender gap in presidential elections and the 2012 speculation that Todd Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” and Richard Mourdock’s about conception through rape being “something God intended to happen” would cost Mitt Romney the White House.

It is well-known that women are less likely than men to vote Republican in presidential election. In 2012, Barack Obama won by 11 points among women while losing by seven among men – an 18-point gender gap. Since 1980, this gender gap has averaged 15 points. But it’s not so clear that it’s driven mainly by the issue of abortion.

In fact, there’s relatively little gender gap when it comes to views on abortion. That Quinnipiac poll found that 54 per cent of men think abortion should be legal in most or all cases, compared to 59 per cent of women. When it comes to abortion in rape or incest cases, 79 per cent of men said it should be legal, compared to 76 per cent of women. Much bigger gender gaps can be found on issues from gun control (58 per cent of women support stricter laws, compared to 33 per cent of men) to taxes (65 per cent of women favour increasing them on higher earners to reduce them on the middle class, compared to 54 per cent of men).

Do women attach greater importance to abortion as a political issue than men? A 2013 Pew poll found virtually no difference in the numbers saying it was a “critical issue facing the country”, but in its August 2015 poll Quinnipiac asked “If you agreed with a presidential candidate on other issues, but not on the issue of abortion, do you think you could still vote for that candidate or not?” and found 33 per cent of women saying no, compared to 22 per cent of men.

With regard to 2012, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck analysed the polling evidence in their excellent book The Gamble and found that the Akin and Mourdock controversies had little effect on the outcome of the presidential race. Of course, that’s not to say abortion doesn’t matter or that it isn’t a partisan issue. 79 per cent of Democrats think it should be legal in all or most cases, compared to just 37 per cent of Republicans. It simply suggests that such attitudes are baked in to longstanding partisan affiliations, such that particular controversies or positions don’t shift the electoral landscape much.

While Marco Rubio’s opposition to rape and incest exceptions is noteworthy – particularly for how few Americans agree with him – it is just one indicator of his very conservative ideology more generally, and that is what might cause him to “get creamed”, rather than his position on abortion in particular.