ACCORDING to conventional wisdom, 1996 was the year the prolife cause stopped mattering.

After taking office in 1992, providing proof positive that he was no friend to pro-lifers, President Clinton rescinded a number of anti-abortion executive orders supported by his two Republican predecessors. The trend culminated in Clinton's spring 1996 veto on the ban that would have outlawed partial-birth abortion, a procedure that even made many pro-choice advocates uncomfortable. Then, in September, as election time drew near, the U.S. cardinals, backed by millions of Catholics who had sent postcards to Congress, took the unprecedented action of petitioning lawmakers, in person, on the steps of the Capitol to override the veto. The pro-life movement seemed to hold a strong position.

Pro-lifers dominated the Republican platform process and were significant players in the nomination of Bob Dole, who told the Catholic Press Association convention last May that Clinton's veto of the partial-birth abortion ban “pushed the limits of decency too far.” That portion of the Dole speech—followed by a swift rebuke from Clinton—made the news that evening.

But Dole rarely brought up the issue again, focusing instead on appealing to Catholic voters by supporting school vouchers. Dole and his running mate, Jack Kemp—clearly uncomfortable with the issue altogether— declined to press the issue of partial-birth abortion during any of the presidential and vice-presidential debates.

Still, Dole's anti-abortion stance won him the opportunity for favorable photo-ops with Cardinal John O'Connor of New York and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia. Cardinal O'Connor, host of the famous Al Smith Dinner, pointedly declined to have an invitation issued for the political affair to Clinton, instead opting to have only the vicepresidential candidates appear. On the eve of the vote, retired Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans publicly declared that a vote for Clinton this year would be a sin.

But to pro-lifers’ dismay, Clinton coasted to a nine-point popular vote victory over Dole, and an Electoral College landslide that included a win in Archbishop Hannan's home state of Louisiana, while polls showed that nearly 60 percent of Catholics voted for the incumbent. All indicators seemed to suggest that pro-life politics had hit a dead end.

But critics of this perspective cite their own poll data. They argue that, far from being a liability for the Republican ticket, pro-lifers continue to be one of the party's important interest groups. By appearing to back away from the issue and declining the opportunity to embrace enthusiastically his party's formal pro-life platform, Dole actually hurt his chances, they argue. The results of congressional elections, in which pro-choice Republicans fared poorly while pro-lifers won some key victories, proves that the pro-life view can still galvanize voters, the argument goes.

Mark Shields, a national columnist and TV commentator, noted that a Los Angeles Times exit poll indicated that 9 percent of all voters named abortion as one of the two top issues which went into their voting decision. Of those voters, 60 percent chose Dole. “That qualifies as a mini-landslide,” said Shields, who added that, “[o]n Nov. 5, abortion was quite relevant to 8.3 million American voters, and Bob Dole carried them over Bill Clinton by nearly 2.5 million votes.”

Women Voters

A Wirthlin Worldwide Poll sponsored by the National Right to Life Committee echoed the results. That poll indicated that about 12 percent of voters considered abortion to be a decisive issue in deciding for whom they would vote. In the Wirthlin survey, of those who identified abortion as one of the two most important issues, 45 percent voted for Dole, while only 35 percent voted for Clinton. The pattern held for women voters who considered abortion an important issue in their votes. These statistics prompted pro-life activists to argue that abortion did not contribute to Dole's indisputable gender-gap problems, which led women to voting overwhelmingly Democratic this year.

That polling data is not a surprise to Rick Hinshaw, director of Family Ministry for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and an adjunct political science professor at Dowling College on Long Island. “That's consistent. We've seen that over the years,” Hinshaw, who is responsible for pro-life activities sponsored by the Long Island-based diocese, told the Register. According to Hinshaw, the polling data indicates that “t's not a political minus to be pro-life. But it's limited in its appeal.” The problem for pro-lifers, said Hinshaw, is that only a relatively small minority—12 percent according to the Los Angeles Times poll—consider abortion to be an issue which can have an impact on their vote.

Still, pro-life activists took heart from this year's congressional races. Candidates who followed the formula used by some popular Republicans in the past few years in some regions of the country—opposition to high taxes and support for legal abortion, the position articulated by Govs. George Pataki (N.Y.) and Christine Todd Whitman (N.J.)—were defeated. Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate embracing such a stance this year were drubbed in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island. This year, noted Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard Magazine, “economically conservative and socially liberal Republicans took a beating.”

But Frances Kissling, president of “Catholics for a Free Choice,” a group supportive of keeping abortion legal, is not impressed with the idea that the poll data indicates strong support for candidates who oppose abortion. “Big deal. Awhole lot of good it did them,” she told the Register. The poll results and the election results, she said, indicated that a strong position against abortion “is a minority position in many ways.” She added that the abortion issue was not a major concern to Catholics or to voters in general. “I don't think it was an issue for most people. Most people don't vote on a single issue,” she said.

She acknowledged, however, that those voters who are concerned about abortion constitute enough of the electorate to make an impact on elections. “Elections are won and lost on such numbers,” she said, “but one cannot translate that to broad-based values.” This year, she said, “the bishops over-emphasized the abortion issue” at the expense of other concerns, such as their opposition to the new welfare reform plan endorsed by Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress; an issue which did not generate a large postcard lobbying campaign.

While formal polling may find it difficult to discover, the Republicans’ widelypublicized “gender gap” problem—in which women voted for Clinton in large numbers—may in part be due to a perceived insensitivity to women's issues among Republicans, including abortion, said Kissling, whose own organization has been criticized for existing only on paper—lacking a grassroots membership.

Despite bishops getting involved in the pro-life issue this election year, observers agreed that it is hard to galvanize anything resembling “the Catholic vote.” Clinton appealed to Catholics by promising to uphold social programs such as Social Security and Medicare, a position popular in the Northeast and industrial Midwest, as well as in retirement havens such as Florida. His support for largely symbolic issues such as school uniforms and hints in one televised debate that he could support modified school choice programs, distanced him from the liberal stances of previous Democratic candidates who had lost Catholic support.

Dole Camp

Republican efforts to curb immigration may have backfired, as more new immigrants cast their votes for Democrats this year. Conservative pro-life Congressman Bob Dornan lost by a small margin to Loretta Sanchez after his Orange County, Calif., district became a predominately Hispanic area in the past few years.

“I don't think there is a monolithic Catholic vote,” noted Hinshaw, who said “there's a lot of Catholics who don't really vote as Catholics. They may vote as union members or as business owners.”

Pro-life activists have shunned the Dole camp since Election Day, charging that the Republican Party never really embraced them to begin with. Maggie Gallagher, writing in The New York Post, commented that “Dole's failure to highlight his pro-life stance may have cost him votes. Astudy by the Polling Co. cited by Gallagher indicated that those voters who generally oppose abortion—but who say it should be allowed in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother—split their votes evenly between Clinton and Dole.

A stronger articulation of the issue, according to Gallagher, could have pushed more of these largely middle-of-the-road voters into the Republican camp this year. “Dole never really made the strong case on the issue,” said Hinshaw. “When candidates take a position and stick to it, people respect it. But when they seem apologetic for their position they turn off middleground voters.”

While rejecting the mainstream press's verdict on the pro-life vote, Hinshaw agreed that pro-lifers still have a long way to go. He hopes for an increase in the numbers of voters who seriously consider abortion as an issue and are willing to support incremental steps to curtail it. Pro-lifers, he concluded, have to view their cause as “a protracted struggle which first has to be educational. We are going to have to lead the politicians. They are not going to lead us.”

Peter Feuerherd is based in New York.