Extreme positions dangerous for both parties in Roe
Does anyone want to win elections anymore? The leak of the draft majority opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade has been manna for the extremes — both Democrats and Republicans. There are two unassailable truths from the polling: 1) the public does not favor a no exceptions ban on abortion, not even among conservatives and 2) the public is against unrestricted, unregulated abortion. Importantly, the issue remains lower in public priority, putting its ability to move the election in question.
Gallup has been polling this issue for decades, with both an absolute ban and unrestricted abortion continuously in the clear minority. The best a ban has polled was 23 percent in favor in May 2009; current support is at 19 percent. Support for no restrictions was at a high in 1993 at 34 percent, with current support at 32 percent. Gallup has 48 percent in the middle at legal “under certain circumstances.”
What are those circumstances? YouGov has polled most extensively recently, finding strong majorities favoring allowing abortion under the “three exceptions” of rape (67 percent), incest (67 percent) and to save the mother’s life (75 percent), including majorities of conservatives in each case. Respondents also accept abortion when there is little or no chance that the child would be born alive, 62 percent to 21 percent, including 42 percent of conservatives to 36 percent opposed.
Beyond those qualifications, things get complicated — and how the question is posed makes a big difference. In 2021 Gallup found that only 41 percent support a ban on abortion after 18 weeks of pregnancy, yet when asked about a ban in the “last 3 months” of pregnancy (same thing), 81 percent supported as recently as 2018.
Gallup has polled a series of restrictions, but the numbers are more than a little old. In 2011, Gallup found support for requiring doctors to inform of the risks of an abortion (87 percent), a 24-hour waiting period (69 percent), parental consent for an adolescent (71 percent), and 64 percent opposed the partial-birth abortion procedure. In 2003, requiring a doctor to provide information on alternatives to abortion was favored at 88 percent.
Will overturning Roe help the Democrats?
Overturning Roe on its own is a positive political development for Democrats, but both Democrats and Republicans are doing everything they can to hurt their political positions. Like both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, it’s another race to the bottom for both parties.
The American public overall does not want the status quo changed. In the YouGov poll after the leak, 60 percent believe the issue is on the “wrong track,” more than unemployment, race relations and immigration: 46 percent opposed overturning Roe(35 percent in favor), with Gallup reporting 58 percent opposing in 2021.
The good news for Democrats is that abortion has become a markedly more important issue, rising from just 4 percent naming it the most important issue (and among the least important issues) in the YouGov poll immediately before the Roe leak, to 8 percent with 11 percent of liberals calling it the most important issue in the May 10 poll — placing abortion only behind health care and climate change. For conservatives, the numbers barely budged, rising from 5 percent to 7 percent.
Such a strong move hints at increased enthusiasm for the mid-terms, a typically dispirited affair for the president’s party. Normally, the party that just lost the presidency is angry and motivated, with the party in power experiencing a combination of the various factions in the winning coalition unhappy they cannot get everything they want and the inevitable letdown after winning. That dynamic has been a part of American politics for decades and structurally sets the Republicans up for a big year.
What the Democrats need is motivation for their base. Clear public support for legality of abortion and some generous fearmongering could be just what the Democrats need to make up for lack of enthusiasm. Combined with Donald Trump’s antics, the Democrats might just be able to stanch the bleeding enough to stop a Republican Senate majority.
Of course, per contemporary American politics, the Democrats are doing their level best to wreck their own chances.
Claims that interracial marriage and civil rights are about to disappear make Chicken Little look like a cock-eyed optimist. Angry protests outside Supreme Court Justices’ homes are disturbing, to say the least. And when fences are put up around the court complex, it starts to look like the Democrats are planning their own insurrection.
The Democratic Senate gave Republicans a bit of an opening by attempting to pass a federal law that would have codified Roe. The measure, which would have provided for any of the multiple popular restrictions, lost with even moderate Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins voting against.
Challenging Democratic overreach are the Republicans’ own activist wing with talk of outright bans with no exception — a highly unpopular option. Making abortion always illegal has only 13 percent support, including just 23 percent of conservatives. When the phrase banned from “conception” is used, the total rises to 18 percent overall and 34 percent among conservatives — still very low.
Abortion has arguably been a winner with Republicans for much of the past 40 years. The pro-life movement has had more energy and enthusiasm, which has allowed it to punch above its polling. But that strength has been rooted in advocating for restrictions that are generally popular with the public. The more creative recent restrictions have much less public support — and an outright ban is not just unpopular, it is motivating Democrats.
If Republicans want to recover on this issue, they need to stick with the “three exceptions” and kick the issue to voter referenda in the states. Democrats would be wise to allow for some restriction and regulation. Unfortunately for both parties, wisdom is in short supply these days.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.
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