In my earlier post about what the likely Biden/Trump rematch looks like in Texas, I said that abortion really wasn’t tested here as a political issue in 2022. I said I’d like to see it be a real focus for next year, if only to get an answer to that question. It was this tweet that got me thinking along those lines.
.@NBCNews poll shows public opinion has done a 180 on abortion in last 20 years. SCOTUS may not care, but everyone on ’24 ballot should.
44% Always legal/most of time
54% Illegal/w/ exceptions
58% Always legal/most of time
38% Illegal/w/ exceptions
— John Della Volpe (@dellavolpe) 9:20 AM – 23 April 2023
It’s great that NBC News has this deep archive of polling data, especially since they’ve asked the same question, which allows for direct comparisons. The shift over time is indeed striking. It’s important to remember, however, that believing abortion should be legal “most of the time” is likely not incompatible with a 15-week ban, as proposed by Sen. Lindsay Graham, in the minds of many voters. There are of course major issues with such a ban, beginning with the fact that most conditions that cause fetal death and serious health risks for the mother cannot be detected until several weeks after that artificial deadline. There’s also the critical question of availability, especially in states that would continue to have other restrictions like wait times and requiring multiple office visits, all of which contribute to having fewer clinics and running out the clock on many women who don’t live near them. I do not expect that anyone who is currently mad about Dobbs and the continued crusade by the zealots to expand it further would be fooled by this proposal. But it’s a reminder that not only is how a poll is worded very important, it’s also the case that however you do word it, people will interpret what it means their own way. Getting at how people understand what the wording means, and what the consequences of their preferred interpretations may be, is incredibly difficult.
A few days after that tweet, Politifact in the DMN did its own study of national opinion on abortion.
Every year, the pollster Gallup asks people about their satisfaction with aspects of American life. Respondents saying they are “very dissatisfied” with “the nation’s policies regarding the abortion issue” have spiked somewhat.
In 2021, 30% of survey respondents said they were “very dissatisfied” on abortion policy. In 2022, the share rose to 41%, and in 2023, it rose to 48%. (As recently as 2014, the share saying this was as low as 19%.)
This finding is broadly echoed in polling by Quinnipiac University that was completed at shorter intervals before and after Roe was overturned.
In May 2021, 57% of respondents told Quinnipiac that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. But Quinnipiac’s most recent survey, from February 2023, found 64% saying abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 29% said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
This shift has also been seen in some state-level polling. In Arkansas, which has some of the nation’s strictest abortion laws, the percentage of respondents to the Arkansas Poll saying that it should be “more difficult” to get an abortion dropped from 50% to below 30% from 2020 to 2022, while the share saying it should be “easier” showed the reverse pattern, climbing from about 13% to 32%, said Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas.
However, polling in Wisconsin shows less dramatic shifts.
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll, said he has “not seen much change” across multiple questions his polling operation has asked in national polls.
For instance, from September 2021 to September 2022 — a period spanning the time before and after the Supreme Court’s ruling — the Marquette poll asked about overturning Roe. (Before the decision, the question was posed about a potential future decision overturning Roe; afterward, the question involved the decision itself.)
Excluding respondents who said they didn’t know anything about a potential or actual decision, the percentage of respondents who opposed it fell modestly, from 72% to 67%, while the percentage that had heard of the decision and supported it rose equally modestly, from 28% to 33%.
Still, these figures showed that respondents favored the abortion-rights position by about a 2-1 margin in a politically competitive state.
And national polling data from the Democratic firm Navigator also shows a general dissatisfaction with the Republican position on abortion, said Margie Omero, a principal with the Democratic research firm GBAO. Asked whether they “approve or disapprove of how Republicans in Congress are handling” abortion policy, 35% approved, compared to 56% who disapproved.
Different polls, different wording, but the overall trend is similar. Again, though, you have to consider what people might have understood the question to mean. Some number of those “very dissatisfied” people could be the forced birth zealots who are upset that overturning Roe didn’t mean that abortion is banned everywhere. In Arkansas, where the laws are so drastic, there’s little room for “more difficult”. Surely some of the people who used to want it to be more difficult now think it’s just right, and some of those thinking it should be easier are just thinking in terms of rape/incest/health of the mother exceptions. While clearly some people are more pro-choice than before, it’s hard to say how many, and how important it is to them.
Now again, all that said, the overall trend across multiple polls, as well as the objective evidence of the 2022 election and abortion referenda in states like Kansas and Kentucky and Montana, strongly suggest that the pro-choice position is the more popular, and the extremist stance now being touted by most Republicans is a loser, while no one buys their soggy attempts at “moderation”. It stands to reason, as we have seen in Presidential horse race polls, that the national shift implies related shifts across the states. And that brings us to Texas.
There is polling data for Texas. The Texas Politics Project has polling data that goes back to 2008. The problem is that they vary the questions from poll to poll, so direct comparisons are tricky. There are a couple of close-enough points we can look at. For example, from July 2008:
Do you believe that abortion should be:
29% generally available
15% more limited
35% illegal except in cases of rape/incest/to save the life of the mother
17% never permitted
5% Don’t know/refused/NA
Who knows what “generally available” and “more limited” mean, especially since the third choice is fairly limited. However you want to look at it, the mostly-to-all-illegal positions are a majority. Now here’s October 2018:
What is your opinion on the availability of abortion?
15% By law, abortion should never be permitted.
29% The law should permit abortion only in case of rape, incest or when the woman’s life is in danger.
12% The law should permit abortion for reasons other than rape, incest, or danger to the woman’s life, but only after the need for the abortion has been clearly established.
39% By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice.
5% Don’t know
I couldn’t begin to tell you what “only after the need for the abortion has been clearly established” means, but given the rest of that question it seems to be about abortion being somewhat more accessible than just the rape/incest/health of the mother exceptions. If we count that as a “generally available” option, then the pro-choice position is now in the majority. Note that at the time this was conducted, we were still more than three years away from the Dobbs decision.
In October 2022, we get a chart summarizing the course of one particular question:
Do you think that abortion laws in Texas should be made more strict, less strict, or left as they are now?
Stricter As now Less strict DK/NA ============================================= Oct 2022 18 25 50 8 Aug 2022 20 21 49 10 Feb 2022 23 23 43 12 Apr 2021 33 22 33 11 Feb 2021 32 18 37 13 Feb 2019 41 20 32 8 Jun 2013 38 21 26 14
Two things to keep in mind here. One is that between April 2021 and February 2022, the Lege passed the vigilante bounty hunter law SB8, which had the effect of making surgical abortion basically illegal and almost completely unavailable. That also means that before then, the “as it is now” option was technically a pro-choice one, while after SB8 it’s an anti-abortion one. In reality, given the widespread closures of clinics after the passage of HB2 in 2013 – you remember, the omnibus anti-abortion bill that was aimed at making it extremely difficult for clinics to operate, the bill that was famously filibustered by Wendy Davis – the “as now” choice was more likely to be favored by those who preferred a strict regime, just because – as noted above – on a practical level abortions were hard to access, especially outside the big urban areas. Vibes-wise, it was mostly anti-abortion before 2021, and definitely anti-abortion after 2021.
With all that said, you can see the clear shift after the passage of SB8. The “less strict” number jumped ten points in less than a year, and was up by 17 points in a year and a half. By August 2022, which is now post-Dobbs, the “less strict” answer is a majority (okay, almost in August but there in October). The trend is there.
Still, there are reasons to be cautious about this. In October 2014 (scroll to page 15) and February 2023 (page 32), the poll gives various specific scenarios for when an abortion might be legal or illegal, which mostly break down to the rape/incest/health of the mother situations and discretionary, abortion-on-demand situations. In both years, there’s a clear distinction between the former, which generally has strong support, and the latter, where support is at best a plurality, and even then comes with limits.
The interpretation I have for this is that poll respondents are broadly sympathetic to women who “need” abortions, but less so – sometimes much less so – to women who “want” abortions. That’s going to make the messaging for this super challenging, with vagueness likely to be the best strategy. The key difference between now and, say, 2014, when Republicans gleefully clubbed Wendy Davis over the head for her pro-choice positions, is exactly that the facts on the ground have changed. People are more likely to understand that women who “need” abortions simply cannot get them in Texas, and that this is harmful to them. That opens the door, but how much that door can swing past the “rape/incest/health of the mother” milestone is a question I can’t answer. As I’ve been saying, I strongly believe we need to test this, but I fully acknowledge that it won’t be easy to do and there are downsides if we fail. I just don’t think there’s any other way forward.
Anyway, this is my manifesto for 2024. I welcome your feedback.