Real Clear Politics has run a pretty good article on the pros and cons of Romney picking Bob McDonnell for Vice President. The article quotes Quentin Kidd as saying that McDonnell’s social issues record could hurt Romney among some women and “If independent-minded women get energized against McDonnell and Romney, that could really spell doom.” I think that such a worry isn’t just overblown, it gets the probabilities backwards. I don’t think that the McDonnell thesis things ends up hurting him. Not only is McDonnell great at talking about it, he has a terrific family story about supporting professionals careers among women within his own family. If interviewers try to pin this on him, he can smack them down (without seeming mean), garner sympathy for himself, and smoothly transition to the economy while reminding everyone that the opposition is more interested in old term papers than the long-term unemployed. We’ve seen him do this in 2009.
The other issue is abortion. The idea that a reasonably competent Romney campaign gets hurt on the abortion issue strikes me as pretty crazy. It isn’t that a Romney/McDonnell ticket (or a Romney/Whoever ticket) couldn’t be hurt by abortion. It’s that they would have to mishandle the issue to lose. For better or worse, abortion isn’t an especially high salience issue for most currently persuadable voters. The economy is obviously a hotter subject. If Obama and his media allies try to paint a Romney/McDonnell ticket as anti-abortion extremists, they open themselves up to easy shots about trying to switch the subject from Obama’s economic failures. There is also Ramesh Ponnuru’s point that “Most voters are willing to support a pro-choicer or a pro-lifer, but most voters don’t want their leaders to seem obsessed with the issue.” I actually don’t like that since I strongly disagree with the abortion policy status quo, but it sets up an interesting dynamic. The persuadable population doesn’t want candidates who seem obsessed by abortion. In order to paint Romney and McDonnell as abortion extremists, the Obama campaign and their media allies will have to focus on the abortion issue themselves. They will have to be the aggressors in a situation where the public tends not to like the aggressor. It would allow Romney/McDonnell to say well we’d like to talk about the more pressing issue of the economy but…
And here is the most important thing. It is absolutely crazy for a guy who supports partial birth abortion and sex selective abortion (and presumably partial birth abortions for purposes of sex selection – that’s an ad just waiting to be made by some anti-abortion group) to pick a fight on abortion with a prepared adversary. The average voter doesn’t know about Obama’s extremism on abortion, and is more concerned about the unemployment rate anyway. An abortion fight picked by Team Obama presents his opponents a free chance to:
a) talk about Obama’s extremism without having to be the ones to bring up the issue
b) make a temperate and articulate statement of pro-life principle – McDonnell is good at that
c) make Obama look like he is trying to avoid talking about the higher salience economic issues and
d) transition back to the economy.
I’ve seen the Democrats try to run this play before. They tried to run it against Romney in the 2002 governor’s race and Scott Brown in the 2010 Senate race. It didn’t work either time. The Democrats looked like some combination of extreme and out of touch with everyday concerns. Trying to switch the issue to abortion from a position of the left-fringe failed in Massachusetts. Romney and Brown were pro-choice (Brown still is), but the national politics of abortion are to the right of the Massachusetts politics of abortion and national public opinion is moving in a pro-life direction. If Romney has an articulate, economy-focused, likeable running mate (in other words not Rick Santorum) who is also strongly pro-life, Romney shouldn’t worry about Obama trying to turn the election into a fight about abortion. With some preparation, Romney can win the abortion argument and use it to help win the economic argument too.