Abortion Might Finally Be a Winning Issue for Democrats

As the Republicans’ long strategy to overturn Roe v. Wade edges closer to reality, voters are expressing their discontent.

Democratic presidential hopefuls at the fifth primary debate on Nov. 20 in Atlanta.
Democratic presidential hopefuls at the fifth primary debate on Nov. 20 in Atlanta. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

A recent New York Times survey of the Democratic field—taken before Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick entered the race—showed little variation in the presidential candidates’ support for abortion rights. Every candidate wants to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal Medicaid dollars from covering abortion care. They all said they’d use Roe v. Wade as a litmus test when selecting Supreme Court justices. Only Joe Sestak and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard were willing to outright state that they support restrictions on third-trimester abortions. (Sen. Amy Klobuchar, though, has previously called third-trimester restrictions “very important.”)

This puts the 2020 Democratic field in a far more progressive position on abortion than any previous slate of presidential candidates. In 2008, Barack Obama called third-trimester abortion bans “entirely appropriate” and promised he wouldn’t impose a Roe litmus test on his judicial nominees. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, supported the Hyde Amendment, as did former Vice President Joe Biden—until he reversed his position this June. “If I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s ZIP code,” Biden said. The three-time presidential candidate likely understood that this time, in this field, he had to rise to meet his competitors on the issue.

The relatively new consensus ought to please reproductive justice advocates, who have been trying to reframe the abortion debate for years. They’ve highlighted the economic barriers to abortion access and pointed to the economic opportunities the procedure affords. They’ve made an affirmative case for abortion as essential health care, rather than trying to refute restrictions as a government overreach issue. They’ve told politicians that the phrase “safe, legal, and rare”—a formulation commonly used in the Democratic Party until around 2012, but which only three 2020 candidates, all long-shots, support now—makes it sound like abortion is a social ill to be avoided rather than the common medical procedure it is. They’ve told stories of the difficult choices women are forced to make when faced with devastating diagnoses of fetal anomalies, the circumstances under which many third-trimester abortions take place. And they’ve argued that pro-choice politicians who support bans on Medicaid abortion coverage aren’t pro-choice at all, because they’re preventing low-income women from choosing abortion.

These efforts seem to have paid off: The Democratic candidates are starting to use the language and make the arguments activists have been using for quite some time. More importantly, this persistent advocacy seems to have helped move voters left on the issue. People who identify as Democrats have increasingly favored legal abortion over the years, enabling the presidential hopefuls to take up more progressive positions. The swing is even more meaningful when put in a broader context. Recent polling suggests that support for abortion rights might be a bigger motivator for voters than support for abortion restrictions, and that voters are growing ever more protective of abortion rights that appear threatened in today’s political landscape.

Historically, anti-abortion voters have been more likely than pro-choice voters to say they wouldn’t vote for a candidate that doesn’t share their views on abortion. Political analysts have taken that to mean that abortion impels more conservatives to the voting booth than liberals, making it a better bet for Republicans than Democrats to lean into their party-line positions.
But Democratic candidates seem to believe that in 2020, with several extreme abortion bans trickling up to a conservative-majority Supreme Court and a surge of women-led activism in the streets, abortion might finally be a winning issue for them.

They’d have good reason to think so. Not only are Democrats becoming more motivated on the issue, the American electorate at large is reporting greater support for abortion rights than it has in decades. Nearly every poll on abortion this year has found support for Roe v. Wade and legal abortion “in all or most cases” at record or near-record highs. An ABC News/Washington Post poll recorded 60 percent of respondents favoring “all or most cases” legal abortion, the highest proportion since 1995, and 5 points higher than the 32-poll average over the period. The poll also reported that support for making abortion illegal “in all or most cases” has dropped nearly 10 percentage points, from 45 percent to 36 percent, since 2010. Reuters reports that Democrats “are the most passionate about the issue” of abortion, in that they’re far more united than Republicans: A Reuters/Ipsos poll from May found that 81 percent of Democrats favor totally or mostly legal abortion, while just 55 percent of Republicans favor totally or mostly illegal abortion.

NBC News has also been surveying Americans on their abortion views. In June, the network reported that support for legal abortion has risen among most demographics—women and men, Democrats and Republicans—since 2008, in a rare case of the country moving together on an issue. But the shift among Democrats has been the most dramatic. NBC found that the proportion of Democrats who say abortion “should always be legal” or “should be legal most of the time” has risen 13 percentage points since 2008, while the proportion of Republicans who say so has risen 4 points. The Pew Research Center found that Republican support for totally or mostly legal abortion stayed mostly steady between 2007 and 2019, with a net decline of 3 points. Over the same time period—from the year before Obama’s election to the start of the 2020 race—Democratic support has climbed 19 points.

I suspect the significant shift in favor of legal abortion owes in some part to the changing demographics of the Democratic Party, which has attracted more college-educated voters and young people—a highly pro-choice bunch—and fewer white evangelicals in recent years. But if that were the whole story, there would be a corresponding drop-off in support for legal abortion among Republicans and independents. That hasn’t happened. Which means it’s more likely that some combination of concerted activist campaigns, changing political rhetoric on the left, and increasingly draconian abortion restrictions in states with Republican-majority legislatures have changed people’s perceptions of where reproductive rights stand in this country, if not their actual minds.

Another bit of evidence that the public is coming around to the idea that states should not dictate a woman’s medical decisions is growing support for abolishing all restrictions on abortion. NBC News’ 2019 poll found support for always-legal abortion at an all-time high: 34 percent, a 3-percentage-point increase since 2018 and a 9-point increase over 2008. ABC News, too, recorded support for totally legal abortion at a record high—27 percent, a number last hit in 1995. Unsurprisingly, Democrats are driving this particular shift. In a survey of more than 40,000 Americans, PRRI saw a 6-point increase in the proportion of Democrats who say “abortion should be legal in all cases” between 2014 (29 percent) and 2018 (35 percent). When Democrats refuse to condone any restrictions on abortions, they’re not just recognizing that third-trimester abortions are both incredibly rare and sometimes necessary. They’re speaking directly to women in their party, who are more likely than male Democrats to say abortion should be legal in all cases, according to the ABC News survey.

It’s still true that the majority of Americans don’t support legal abortion with no restrictions, the current position staked out by the majority of Democratic presidential candidates. But this position, too, appears to be strategic: There’s little evidence in the opinion polls to suggest that the difference between some restrictions and no restrictions is enough to sway a significant number of potential voters from the Democrats’ vision for reproductive justice toward the Republican Party’s current crusade against Roe v. Wade. Pew found more Americans agreeing with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party on abortion, by a margin of 10 points. PBS documented a similar Democratic lead on abortion among independent voters. Even as right-wing commentators have tried to inflame panic over new laws like New York’s Reproductive Health Act, which expands abortion rights, 59 percent of survey respondents told Pew that they’re most concerned about states making it harder to get an abortion. Only 39 percent are worried that states are making it easier.

Recent abortion bans—including Georgia’s and Mississippi’s, which ban abortion around the sixth week of pregnancy, and Alabama’s, which bans nearly all abortions—are wildly unpopular, and are currently being challenged in court. Three-quarters of Democrats told pollsters in July that the bans are helping motivate them to vote in the 2020 elections. Fifty-four percent of respondents in the PBS poll said they would “definitely not” vote for a 2020 presidential candidate who’d install Supreme Court justices to gut Roe v. Wade, as Donald Trump promised to do in his 2016 campaign. Only 45 percent of voters said the same in 2008.

Trump has already put two anti-abortion justices on the Supreme Court, and they’ll rule on their first major abortion case in March. Republicans enjoy a structural advantage provided by the Electoral College, the makeup of the courts, and the gerrymandering that’s allowed states like Ohio to enact abortion laws far more restrictive than the electorate favors. All of this makes it fair to wonder what difference it’ll make if abortion rights do galvanize Democratic voters next November—will they be able to make any real progress? But the steady leftward movement of Democratic voters and leaders on abortion, alongside record-high support for legal abortion among the entire American public, hints at the possibility of a more lasting change in the consciousness of the American voter.

Given their new Supreme Court appointments and their control over statehouses and governorships, Republicans have finally taken the extremist abortion rhetoric they’ve been hawking for decades to its logical conclusion. In doing so, they’ve given voters the opportunity to imagine two Americas: one governed by the abortion bans of the far right, the other by the protections of Roe v. Wade. The polls are clear on which set of policies they prefer. Voters might even be motivated enough to do something to save the abortion rights they’ve increasingly come to support: Translate those preferences into votes.

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