The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade provided Democrats with at least a momentary shot in the arm this summer. In special elections conducted before that decision, Republicans were over-performing the fundamentals and even flipped a seat in Texas. But Democrats over-performed in all five special elections conducted afterward by an average of more than five points.
The question has been whether it would carry through to the general election. And Republicans and conservatives increasingly believe they might mitigate the issue — in part by keeping focused on other issues like the economy, but also by pitching Democrats as being extreme on abortion.
But what does the evidence show on the latter?
A case in point in recent days was a Republican poll shared widely in conservative circles. The headline from the National Review read, “On Abortion, Voters View Democrats as More Extreme Than Republicans by Two to One.”
But that’s quite misleading. What the poll actually tested were two views on abortion — “allowing abortions up until nine months of pregnancy for any reason,” or “restricting abortions to only in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger” — without ascribing either to a political party. It found 57 percent viewed the former as more extreme, while 29 percent picked the latter.
The idea is that the former summarizes the Democratic position, more or less, while the latter summarizes the GOP position. But it’s not nearly so simple.
This GOP angle of attack — casting Democrats as the real extremists — has shown up repeatedly in campaign ads seeking to explain Republicans’ past abortion positions and recently in debates. Many Democratic politicians will be asked whether they support any limits on abortion, and they will demur by saying something like “the government shouldn’t be involved” or that “that should be up to a woman and their doctor.” Democrats also cast it as a manufactured issue, rightly noting that abortions in the third trimester are very rare and are often pursued for medical reasons.
President Biden was asked that question Thursday. Unlike many in his party, he actually said “yes,” that there should be limits on abortion. But when asked what those limits should be, he said merely, “It’s Roe v. Wade. Read it, man. You’ll get educated.” (In fact, Roe did not limit abortion, but rather provided a window in which it was constitutionally protected.)
Democrats have increasingly avoided addressing any limits on abortion rights in recent years, and the reason is readily apparent: They don’t want to get bogged down in the details. While most Americans support abortion rights and oppose Roe being overturned, polls also show clear majorities often support banning abortion sometime around the window Roe provided (which is viability, or around 22 to 24 weeks). But drawing a line is a recipe for alienating outspoken portions of the base, and it undercuts that talking point that this a women’s rights issue, full stop.
The main issue with the poll question is that, as with many such surveys from partisan pollsters testing issue positions, it’s skewed.
While abortion being available at any time is a logical extension of saying the government should stay out of it, that hasn’t been the explicit position of the Democratic Party. Nor has there been an extensive push in blue states to allow abortion at any point in a pregnancy, even though Democrats could have done so (given, as noted above, that Roe didn’t restrict that). Just a half-dozen states have no time limit in state law, but later abortions remain very rare, and in some of those states, they aren’t performed at all on an elective basis, according to PolitiFact.
That’s a contrast to the many recent efforts in red states to actually ban abortion both before and after Roe was overturned. And unlike the terms laid out by the poll question, most of them do not include rape and incest exceptions. PolitiFact noted this summer that 15 of 22 bans that had taken effect or would soon take effect after Roe was overturned included no such exceptions.
So the poll was effectively comparing a view on the left that hasn’t really been pursued on any broad basis, with a view on the right that actually isn’t as extreme as the policy that actually has been pursued in many red states.
And indeed, you need only look to the same pollster to see how this issue breaks down when you ask about the parties specifically. In that case, its poll of battleground states last month showed the results flipped: 51 percent said the GOP was more extreme, while 32 percent said Democrats were, NBC News reported.
It’s possible that views could have changed since then, with Republicans trying to turn the focus on Democrats’ punts. Few things are as effective in politics as attempts to muddle an issue and make voters throw their hands up, believing both sides are some version of wrong.
But so far there’s little evidence that such efforts have substantially recast the issue. An Associated Press-NORC poll last week showed Americans favored Democrats on the abortion issue by 22 points. That echoes not just the battleground poll from last month, but also a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted around the same time.
It seems more likely that, if anything, the issue might simply have lost some salience given the passage of time since Roe was overturned and as inflation and gas prices have reemerged as bigger issues in the election. It’s also true that Republicans were always unlikely to suffer on this issue in the general election as much they did in special elections, given special elections feature lower turnout and tend to involve bigger swings.
It’s probably wishful thinking to think Republicans can flip this issue on its head; but that doesn’t mean it will be the silver bullet Democrats hoped.