Anti-abortion ad aired before Democratic debate was fueled by right-wing media talking points

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

MSNBC aired an ad from the anti-choice group March for Life Action before the first Democratic presidential debate that repeated inaccurate right-wing media talking points about abortion, alleging Democratic candidates are “extreme” for supporting abortion access. In reality, the ad cited polling data that was not only commissioned by an anti-abortion group, but that has also been soundly criticized by other polling experts as misleading.

March for Life Action, the political arm of the anti-abortion group March for Life, ran a “six-figure ad-buy” starting on June 26 to promote a common right-wing media talking point that “the American pro-life consensus, and even the pro-life consensus among Democrats, contrasts sharply with the official position of every Democratic candidate involved in the debate.” In the ad, March for Life Action relied on February polling from the Marist Institute for Public Opinion commissioned by the anti-abortion group Knights of Columbus to claim that “8 in 10 Americans agree abortion should have” legal restrictions and that “6 in 10 pro-choice Americans support limiting [abortion] to at most the first trimester.”

These anti-abortion talking points match the messaging strategy being deployed by right-wing media and prominent conservatives ahead of the 2020 election to paint Democrats and those who support abortion rights as “extreme” and out of touch with voters -- despite considerable evidence showing support for affirmative abortion polices. Right-wing media and other outlets have cited polling commissioned by Knights of Columbus in the past to criticize or draw attention to the Democratic Party’s stance on abortion. The March for Life Action ad also received substantial right-wing media attention, with Fox News host Laura Ingraham airing excerpts from the ad and interviewing March for Life President Jeanne Mancini during a segment with this chyron:

Knights of Columbus has previously faced significant pushback on the claims made by their abortion-related polling due to the explicit anti-choice stance of the organization -- something that is often reflected in the framing of their polling questions. In particular, the February poll garnered criticism from pollsters and data analysts who pointed to the ideological bent of the Knights of Columbus, the relative stability of voters’ views on abortion, and the fact that the findings of the February poll in particular seemed to be an outlier when compared to similar assessments.

Despite general attitudes about abortion legality remaining relatively stable from poll to poll, critics have argued that the results of abortion-related polling are highly dependent on the language used in framing or asking the questions. For example, polling firm PerryUndem replicated a question asked in the February Knights of Columbus poll to demonstrate the impact that question framing can have on results. When initially using the Knights of Columbus language, PerryUndem’s results showed a similar level of support for abortion restrictions. However, when “asked a follow up to clarify” if “voters want lawmakers to pass new laws that reflect their responses” on the legality of abortion, the firm found that “a majority of voters (68%) think it’s better if lawmakers stay out of the issue” -- contradicting the Knights of Columbus results and the explanations of the data's meaning by right-wing media.

It’s not surprising that March for Life Action would run an anti-abortion ad, or that the group would want to target Democratic debate viewers. But those viewers should know that the data behind this poll -- and the widespread deployment of its findings by right-wing media -- are part of a larger effort by abortion opponents to inaccurately suggest that support for abortion access is “extreme” when there is substantial evidence to the contrary.