WASHINGTON, Aug. 7, 2015 — A series of increasingly disturbing undercover videos from the Center for Medical Progress has stoked controversy around Planned Parenthood and caused Republicans and Democrats to draw battle lines over the future of the abortion provider.
These skirmishes, like the Senate’s recent symbolic vote to strip federal funding or the upcoming investigative hearings, are not only a proxy battle in the broader, ongoing war over abortion. This is also about the organization itself; Planned Parenthood’s state of health or weakness could have real electoral implications.
In the run-up to the 2012 elections, Planned Parenthood spent almost $11.9 million. Spending by other organizations dwarfed that, but the Sunlight Foundation found that Planned Parenthood’s spending was efficient. Their late ad buys in targeted states may not have been the sole reason for President Barack Obama’s victory, but they certainly helped.
In states with razor-thin margins like Virginia and Ohio, that spending may have made a difference. Over the last two election cycles, Planned Parenthood has spent about $5 million on pro-Democrat messages and about $12.9 million bashing Republicans.
If it weren’t for the $14,000 Planned Parenthood spent supporting a Republican in 2014, you might confuse it with a wing of the Democratic Party.
Planned Parenthood supports the Democrats with more than money. They have spent considerable effort framing their suite of “women’s health issues” to include access to birth control and cancer screenings. This allows Democratic candidates to pivot quickly if they want to engage women without talking about abortion. This messaging support is nearly as valuable as the monetary support.
That’s a big reason why Democrats have reacted so angrily to the CMP videos: They need the gravy train to continue.
No one needs it more than Democratic presidential nominee-in-waiting Hillary Clinton, who doubled down on her support for Planned Parenthood just before the fifth video was released.
Struggling to retain the enthusiasm that fueled Obama’s electoral coalition, Clinton has to bank on a big showing from women voters to make up for lower vote totals from idealistic left-wingers and minority groups. Even if it spends only $10-15 million, Planned Parenthood will be an important ally for Clinton.
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans desperately want to regain the moral high ground on the abortion issue, ground they lost when 2012 Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock failed to speak coherently about the right to life while on television.
Planned Parenthood might prove to be a good foil for the GOP. Polls released this week showed their approval rating at 45 percent. As several media outlets touted, that’s higher than the National Rifle Assn. and several other politicians and advocacy groups.
There’s a dose of spin in those numbers, though: A 2013 poll by the National Right to Life Committee showed Planned Parenthood sitting at 63 percent approval. It also showed that only 45 percent of respondents knew that Planned Parenthood is an abortion provider, a fact NRTL trumpeted as a sign of hollow support.
It’s tough to compare polls from two different organizations, but the 18 percent favorability drop across the two polls suggests some change in public perception, even if Planned Parenthood’s favorability remains strong for now.
If those disturbing videos keep rolling out each week, there’s reason to believe Planned Parenthood will lose its coveted position as a voice of authority on women’s rights. And that might cause some heartburn when 2016’s Democratic candidates are assessing their electoral health.