With a reframed message, Democrats can start winning the abortion fight
The news of the Supreme Court’s intention to overturn Roe v. Wade has set off a political firestorm across the United States, triggering the most serious and sustained national debate over abortion rights in more than 50 years.
Most public opinion research on the issue has found that the American public’s views are in-line — broadly speaking — with the ‘pro-choice’ position commonly associated with the political left.
Why, then, are Democrats consistently the underdogs in this fight? In other words, why haven’t Democrats been able to effectively weaponize this issue against Republicans, who have been engaged in a concerted effort to undermine abortion rights in states across the country?
The answer is that Democrats lack a compelling messaging frame on abortion rights that is positive, inclusive, centered on the potent themes of women’s health and safety, and responsive to the fact that the electorate’s attitudes toward abortion are far more nuanced than assuming a simple pro-choice or pro-life stance, per the findings of new national polling conducted by Schoen Cooperman Research.
Importantly, though two-thirds of likely midterm election voters support a legal right to an abortion (66 percent), a majority of voters (55 percent) — including 55 percent of Independent voters and 58 percent of ideologically moderate voters — support abortion rights with some restrictions, according to our survey.
While Democrats have struggled to develop a narrative to reach this sizable ‘middle’ portion of the electorate, Republicans have found success in their strategy of not attacking abortion rights per se, but rather, making what is permissible increasingly narrow and characterizing Democrats’ positions as extreme, which many voters increasingly find them to be.
Indeed, there is little public support for an unencumbered right to abortion — as only 11 percent of voters believe abortion should be legal at all times during pregnancy — thus, much of the current messaging from the Democratic side is polarizing and out of step with the national sentiment.
Our poll also found that the electorate’s views on abortion permissibility are actually more restrictive than what is currently allowed under Roe v. Wade. One-half of voters (49 percent) say abortion should be legal in the first fifteen weeks or fewer — so, more limiting than what is currently permissible under Roe — whereas just 6 percent say it should be legal up to the first 23 weeks, which is the timetable established under Roe.
That being said, majorities of voters also oppose overturning the landmark Supreme Court ruling (51 percent) — including 53 percent of Independent voters and 52 percent of ideologically moderate voters — and say they favor a law being passed in their state codifying a legal right to abortion under similar parameters as Roe (56 percent).
This discrepancy underscores another major problem for Democrats: There is a clear lack of public awareness as to what is currently permissible vis-à-vis abortion access, as well as critical misperceptions about the process.
In the absence of a succinct messaging strategy from Democrats that also educates voters on the issue, the right’s mischaracterizations of the abortion process — which unquestionably play a role in driving voters’ hesitancy toward abortion — have come to dominate the public sphere.
In that sense, a plurality of voters (38 percent) falsely believes that most abortions are surgical procedures, while just 25 percent know that the majority of abortions are performed via oral medication — and when voters are told that oral medications account for a majority of abortions in the United States, 36 percent become more supportive of abortion based on that fact alone.
Our results ultimately underscore the urgency of Democrats developing a simple and reassuring narrative on abortion — in the way that Republicans have “protect life” — that allows the party to access the substantial ‘middle’ of the electorate that supports a legal right to an abortion, but supports some restrictions around it.
Encouragingly, our findings indicate that Democrats can win this messaging war — and increase their chances of successfully advancing policies protecting a woman’s legal right to abortion — by repositioning the abortion rights fight as a fight to protect women’s access to safe and quality healthcare, rather than a fight over choice versus life.
Majorities of voters are compelled to support abortion as a legal right based on messaging that emphasizes access to safe and legal procedures as being essential in order to ensure quality health care for women (65 percent) and abortion as a safe medical procedure that is only done after careful consultation between a woman and her doctor (63 percent).
Importantly, these top-testing messaging frames are also compelling to approximately three-quarters of voters who are somewhat conservative on abortion legality — meaning, those who support a legal right to an abortion at most up to three months.
When testing two common pro-choice articulations side-by-side, we found that voters more strongly support abortion being “safe, legal, and accessible” (46 percent), rather than “safe, legal, and rare” (29 percent). That being said, voters are clearly receptive to the concept of abortion being ‘rare’ in the sense that they want it to be a procedure that is only be undertaken after careful and thoughtful consultation between a woman and her doctor.
Ultimately, by recasting the right to have an abortion as a matter of women’s health and safety, Democrats can shift the national conversation away from the contentious areas of religion and politics in a way that enables the party to rebuild a coalition based on a majority that supports a legal right to choose in a post-Roe v. Wade world.
Candidly, this is one of the most important fights of our lifetimes. The stakes for the Democratic Party — and more importantly, for women’s rights, both nationally and globally — could not be higher.
By embracing this strategic messaging shift, Democrats can drive lasting, transformational change that empowers current and future generations of American women, while also achieving a much-needed win on one of the defining political issues of our era.
Carly Cooperman is a pollster and partner with the public opinion company Schoen Cooperman Research based in New York. She is coauthor of the book, “America: Unite or Die.” Follow her on Twitter @carlycooperman. Zoe Young is vice president of Schoen Cooperman Research.
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