Some Voters Are at Odds With Their Party on Abortion

Despite decades of partisan fighting in Washington, Americans are not as neatly divided on abortion as politicians and activists.,


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Abortion is one of the most polarizing issues in Washington. Congressional Democrats and Republicans all but unanimously back their party’s view on abortion, and many highly-engaged activists feel the same way.

But the public’s view of abortion is far more complicated.

Despite decades of partisan fighting, Americans are not as neatly divided on abortion as politicians and activists. There are Republicans who support abortion rights, Democrats who oppose abortion and a surprisingly large group of voters who appear to have muddled or conflicted views. Overall, 26 percent of voters hold a different view on abortion than the presidential candidate they supported in 2020, according to data from an AP VoteCast election survey of more than 100,000 voters.

No issue quite compares to abortion, at least not in its emotional and moral stakes. Yet by some measures, more voters hold views on abortion at odds with those of their presidential pick than on other hot-button issues, including gun control, coronavirus mask mandates or a border wall.

The relatively large number of voters who split with their party on abortion may simply be a reflection of how the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade often kept the issue from the center of political debate. But it may also suggest that many voters just don’t feel as strongly about the issue as one might assume.

The findings in the AP VoteCast election survey are a reminder that American politics are not always as polarized as we imagine. The bitterly partisan fight unfolding in statehouses and courthouses, even in the Supreme Court’s split decision on Friday over the Texas abortion law, can obscure how many Americans of all parties struggle with the weighty moral and ethical questions raised by abortion.

As recently as 30 years ago, Democrats and Republicans had very similar views of abortion. In 1991, 42 percent of Democrats thought abortion should be legal whenever a woman sought one, compared with 41 percent of Republicans. Although attitudes about abortion have gradually tracked more sharply along partisan lines since then, there are still many voters who hold a mix of views that diverge from party allegiance or affiliation.

Less engaged and moderate voters are especially likely to hold abortion views at odds with their party. According to the 2018 General Social Survey, 92 percent of college-educated liberal Democrats believe it should be possible for women to obtain a legal abortion if she wanted for any reason, compared with just 55 percent of more moderate Democrats. Similarly, 39 percent of moderate Republicans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to Pew Research.


According to polls, conflicted voters on abortion tend to be relatively religious Democrats and less religious Republicans.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

The complexity of Americans’ views on abortion is perhaps a reflection of the role religion plays in it. Only a handful of other political issues are more closely tied to people’s personal religious beliefs.

At least 65 percent of evangelical Christians believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, according to the AP VoteCast data, compared with 29 percent of nonevangelical voters. That 36-point gap is far larger than the 21-point gap between evangelical and nonevangelical support for Joseph R. Biden in the 2020 election.

As a result, the conflicted voters tend to be relatively religious Democrats and less religious Republicans, including Black evangelical Democrats who oppose abortion or relatively secular white working-class Trump voters who support abortion rights.

The importance of religion brings a clear regional dimension to the political stakes of the issue. Evangelical and religious voters are disproportionately concentrated in the South. That includes conflicted Democrats: Only 59 percent of Southern Democratic-leaning voters say most abortions should be legal, according to Pew Research. Conflicted Republicans, meanwhile, are likeliest to live in the North and especially the Northeast.

For Republicans, the electoral risk might be most pronounced in these Northern battleground states, where a sizable share of their voters believe abortion should be legal. About 37 percent of Donald J. Trump’s supporters in Pennsylvania and Michigan believe that abortion should be mostly legal, according to the AP VoteCast data. It’s a large enough number to create a plausible electoral vulnerability for Republicans advocating abortion restrictions, but it’s a small enough number that the party would most likely support new abortion restrictions if the Supreme Court allowed it.

There’s nothing new about these cultural issues holding Republicans back in the Midwest.

Republicans struggled to break through in the region for a generation, as the religious right helped the party in the South but not in the less evangelical Northern battleground states. It was Mr. Trump’s new brand of incendiary politics, focused on issues like immigration and crime, that helped Republicans gain an advantage in the region by polarizing American politics along educational rather than religious lines.

Although renewed attention on abortion might cut against some Trump-era trends, it could tend to reinforce others, like deteriorating Democratic strength among nonwhite voters. Much like white voters, Black and Hispanic voters are largely divided on abortion, even though they are far more likely to vote Democratic.

Of course, just because voters are conflicted on an issue doesn’t mean they are bound to break to the other party. Many of these voters are partisans, despite their views on abortion, precisely because they care more about other issues.

It’s even possible that many of these conflicted voters aren’t conflicted between their views and their party’s views, but simply conflicted on abortion itself. The number of Americans who support or oppose abortion rights can vary widely, depending on how pollsters phrase the question. And while polls routinely show that a majority of voters think abortion should be mostly legal, polls often show significant support for the kinds of restrictions that might be up for debate if the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

The confusion is perhaps best illustrated in a series of poll questions asked by Gallup. Each result alone could seem to vindicate either side’s view of abortion. Together, however, they raise doubts about whether a majority of voters have a clear position on the issue at all.

According to Gallup, voters overwhelmingly think abortion should generally be illegal during the second trimester. But a different Gallup poll found that voters opposed a ban on abortion after 18 weeks, in the middle of the second trimester.

In another set of perplexing findings, Gallup found that 60 percent of Americans thought abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, only to see support drop to 45 percent simply by adding the condition: “when the woman does not want the child for any reason.” Apparently, many people who support legal abortion still recoil at the idea of it under many circumstances.

These seemingly incompatible findings suggest that a large number of voters either have complex and nuanced views or are so conflicted that even subtle changes in the wording of a question can yield huge changes in the results.

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