Cutting through the abortion polling mess
Erick Erickson | American sentiment remains confused, before and after the leak
For years, polling has been used not so much to find out what Americans think but to persuade Americans to think a particular way. Since the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion in Dobbs v. Mississippi Women’s Health Organization, which would overturn Roe v. Wade, Americans have been inundated with polling designed not to tell us what people think but to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court and the Republican Party that ending Roe would be politically damaging to the political right.
That is not true.
To understand the media narration about abortion polling, you must understand two things. First, the majority of American media outlets are pro-abortion and have a vested interest in keeping Roe in place. Second, due to that bias, most Americans have been told, and now believe, that ending Roe means ending abortion altogether in America. As Justice Alito’s draft opinion notes, overturning Roe just means letting the 50 states decide the issue through their elected representatives.
Elliott Morris, a data journalist for The Economist, is a perfect example of the media’s pro-abortion bias. In a tweet about The Economist’s polling on abortion, Morris notes, “57% of US adults support legal abortion in most or all cases, while only 14% approve of an outright ban.” Pay close attention to the language “support legal abortion in most or all cases.” What does the poll actually show?
Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner breaks the actual polling down and finds that Justice Alito’s opinion fits squarely within the views of a majority of Americans. The Economist’s polling shows only one-third of Americans believe Mississippi’s protections for the unborn after 15 weeks of gestation go too far. Only 11 percent of Americans want the Supreme Court to be the arbiter of abortion policy in the United States. More than a third say the states should set abortion policy, and 20 percent have no idea what they think.
It is not just The Economist’s poll. The most detailed polling in America on abortion comes from Pew Research. It shows abortion opinions in the United States are a jumbled mess. According to Pew, two-thirds of Americans say abortion should be illegal in all or some cases. Also, according to Pew, 71 percent of Americans want abortion to be legal in all or some cases. It is a completely contradictory mess.
Pew, however, has found a few consistent data points. First, Americans do not like a one-size-fits-all abortion policy, which suggests letting each state decide what would be best. Second, only a small portion of Americans want either a complete ban on abortion or abortion on demand until birth. Most Americans favor more restrictions as the development of the child in the womb continues. Most Americans would be fine with Mississippi’s protections for the unborn after 15 weeks. A small minority of Americans vocally oppose a 15-week limit.
If Justice Alito’s draft opinion does represent the final disposition of the court, this decision will not come with horrible ramifications for Republicans as some speculate. Despite the press insisting that Americans demand the preservation of Roe, the real-world data does not exist to generalize how Americans really think about the issue.
In 2016, with a 4-4 split on the Supreme Court, the American people elected Donald Trump president and gave him the ability to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat—a seat that could have shifted the court to the left for a generation. In 2019, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a fetal heartbeat bill that protected the unborn after six weeks of gestation. The author of that legislation, state Rep. Ed Setzler, represented a district in Georgia that Democrats Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and Stacey Abrams, in the governor’s race, won in 2018. Setzler became the most heavily targeted state legislator in the United States, with liberal groups pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into an effort to defeat him. In 2020, Trump lost Setzler’s district, but Setzler won it again.
Now, in 2022, even the polling after the draft opinion leak does not look like Americans care as much as liberals had hoped. CNN’s polling, which purports to show most Americans support abortion, shows the generic ballot strength of the GOP increased after the leak. The polling CNN conducted before the leak showed Republicans favored by just 1 percentage point in the generic ballot. After the leak, the GOP jumped to a 7-point margin on the generic ballot. Additionally, voters who say overturning Roe would make them happy are twice as enthusiastic about voting, according to the same polling data.
American views on abortion are a muddled mess. Many believe ending Roe ends abortion, which it does not. Many states have few if any abortion centers, and with somewhere between 600,000 and 800,000 abortions in America last year, most Americans do not know anyone directly affected by abortion. If the Dobbs decision is as leaked, media outrage will not be enough to shift American sentiment in large part because that sentiment is so confused. The bottom line, however, is that most Americans do favor restrictions on abortion and do not favor the Supreme Court being the arbiter of abortion policy, which puts Justice Alito and the court majority firmly on the side of majority American opinion.
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