Abortion rights is a winning issue

Posted on August 24, 2022

Recent polls confirm that Americans overwhelmingly support abortion rights and oppose the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade. This is a powerful issue for progressives and Democrats in virtually every 2022 campaign.

Before we turn to the useful polling data that’s now available, let’s talk about the near-useless polling results generated over the years. Longtime questions and answers on abortion are now virtually irrelevant. This is because there used to be a whole range of abortion half-measures, like waiting periods, mandatory sonograms, restrictions on clinics, parental notifications, and politics-driven cutoff dates (e.g., 12 weeks). These half-measures were generally popular, in large part because Americans hardly understood what they meant.

Trying to account for these half-measures, pollsters asked if abortion should be legal or illegal “always” or “most of the time.” This was always a vague and confusing question, and it’s now almost without value except to estimate that small slice of ultraconservatives who would always ban abortion. Pollsters also have asked if voters “approve or disapprove” of SCOTUS overturning Roe v. Wade, which is now beside the point.

All progressives need to understand that, because of the Supreme Court ruling, yesterday’s half-measures are politically irrelevant. Conservatives have painted themselves into a corner; soon they’re all going to have to support a ban on abortion, with or without a small exception, or risk losing their next primary election.

So, in today’s politics, the relevant question is: does a candidate favor an outright ban on all abortions, yes or no? And for those candidates who say yes, would the abortion ban include or exclude situations of rape or incest?

Sadly, there are not a whole lot of recent polls that ask the right questions. Nevertheless, based on longtime trends, it is pretty clear that at least two-thirds of Americans oppose an abortion ban even if it excludes rape or incest, while about 90 percent oppose such a ban if it lacks an exception for rape or incest.

A nationwide Monmouth University poll taken in late June is most on-point. It found that only 32 percent support an abortion ban if it includes exceptions for rape or incest, and just 10 percent support a ban if it doesn’t except rape or incest.

A state poll for the Nevada Independent in July found that only 8 percent would ban abortion in all circumstances, which is nearly identical to the 9 percent who support a total ban in the Des Moines Register Iowa poll. A state poll by the University of Texas in June demonstrated that only 15 percent support a complete ban on abortion. Even in the very conservative state of South Dakota, just 20 percent support an abortion ban without an exception for rape or incest.

In the New York Times, Nate Cohn applied data from the Kansas referendum where voters rejected – by a margin of 59 to 41 – a Republican-backed constitutional amendment which would have empowered the state legislature to ban abortion. (The Kansas referendum was designed in a confusing way and timed to give antiabortion advocates their very best chance.)

Cohn found, comparing the data to other states, that the abortion rights side would win a referendum in every state except for Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming (although Arkansas, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming are perhaps too close to call). The point is, except for a handful of super-red states, abortion is a political winner.

Also keep in mind that we have reached the point where virtually all solidly antiabortion voters are also solidly voting for Republicans. They are not persuadable and they’re coming out to vote no matter what we say or do. So, there is no harm in pissing them off.

What you need to do now is get conservative candidates and officials on-the-record, as explained in the prior IdeaLog essay, “How to Turn Abortion into a Wedge Issue.” And then start talking about real-world examples of the mindless injustice of antiabortion laws—like the 10-year-old Ohio rape survivor who had to go to Indiana for an abortion. Compel the antiabortion extremist candidates and officials to address the cruelty of their ideology. There’s no time to waste.