Stem cell research received possibly the most attention of any “values” issues in this year’s midterm election. Building on the tremendous success of stem cell supporters, leaders in the incoming Congress have already vowed to prioritize the expansion of embryonic stem cell research. The rest of Congress would do well to heed the calls of the new pro-science value voters and follow suit.
Stem cell research proved a potent political issue in the 2006 election. The Stem Cell Research and Cures Act, which protects the legality of embryonic stem cell research, passed in Missouri, and embryonic stem cell supporters won elections in Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, among others.
These developments show that there has been movement in voters’ views across the country. Embryonic stem cell research advocates have effectively shifted the debate away from the contentious issue of abortion to the potential of this research, garnering tremendous public support in the process.
During the 2006 midterm elections, embryonic stem cell research advocates were more active than ever. More money was spent on the Missouri stem cell ballot initiative than any other ballot initiative in the history of the state. The number of political ads supporting embryonic stem cell research nearly doubled in October from the previous two months. And Majority Action, a group focusing on supporting progressives in key races around the country, ran ads highlighting the issue in six congressional races.
Michael J. Fox appeared in the most powerful ad on the topic, supporting winning candidates in Missouri, Maryland, and Wisconsin. A poll by HCD Research showed that the ad increased support for stem cell research by five percent and increased concerns for a candidate’s stand on the issue to 70 percent from 57 percent. After viewing the ad, 71 percent agreed that the election was relevant to our national stem cell policy.
Many campaigns accurately assessed the tide of public opinion. The number of candidates highlighting their support for embryonic stem cell research grew as Election Day approached. And most notably, none of the stem cell advertising highlighted a candidate’s opposition to embryonic stem cell research. Ads from opponents of this research only stressed that they supported adult stem cell research, avoiding the issue of embryonic stem cell research altogether.
Embryonic stem cell research also had an indirect effect on many races. A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll indicated that the issue of stem cell research made voters 18 percent more likely to vote for Democrats in congressional elections and made Independents 27 percent more likely to vote Democratic. Both of these increments represented the greatest differential of voter preference among any of the issues voters were asked about—including the Iraq War. A Research!America poll also found that 67 percent of voters believed that stem cell research was an important electoral issue and 58 percent opposed President Bush’s veto of embryonic stem cell legislation. Strong supporters of embryonic stem cell research won Senate, House, and Gubernatorial races all across the country.
This electoral success was predictable from pre-election polling on the issue. Support for embryonic stem cell research has consistently been on the rise; a Pew Research poll shows that support for the research over the last four years has increased dramatically across all religious, ideological, and age groups, and has increased by 18 percent among white Evangelicals in particular. Polls have found support for the research anywhere from 56 percent to 72 percent among Americans, with 57 percent supporting Congress expanding the number of embryonic stem cell lines eligible for federal funding.
Such expansive support for stem cell research would have been unthinkable four years ago. Embryonic stem cells were an extremely partisan issue in 2002, with pro-choice and pro-life forces lining up on either side of the debate. And less than half of Independents supported the research in 2002, as opposed to 65 percent in 2006.
Part of this change is due to the advances in the science; in lab animals embryonic stem cells have been used to cure paralysis, slow blindness, and reduce the effects of Parkinson’s disease. But the shift has also been the result of advocates educating the public on the relevant issues.
What does this all suggest? Voters have made their support for stem cell research abundantly clear. Candidates who have made support for the research a major part of their campaign have been successful. And the electorate has come to have a more nuanced view of the ethical issues.
The debate about embryonic stem cell research also provides a model for appealing to the American people’s appreciation for the importance of innovation and of the strength of our scientific institutions. Polling suggests that close to 90 percent of Americans believe scientific advancements improve society. Vigorous scientific research helps improve human life, advances our sense of national purpose, and protects our material prosperity.
The view that science does not threaten our core values and that it represents a brighter future, as long as it is subject to regulation, reflects what might be called a sense of critical optimism. The advent of the critically optimistic value voter may be an important long-term result of the 2006 election, and will surely figure prominently in the next Congress.