Much of the mainstream media coverage of Roe v. Wade’s recent forty-year anniversary indicated that grassroots abortion rights activists are pessimistic about the future. However, in the days before the March for Life many pro-choice commentators expressed optimism. They claimed that recent polling data indicates that public opinion is shifting in a direction more sympathetic to legal abortion. For example, a recent Think Progress article cites a Fox News exit poll indicating that 59 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Similarly, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll covered in the Washington Post and elsewhere suggested that 70 percent of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.
These hopeful takes from supporters of abortion all commit the cardinal sin of abortion politics: reading too much into the results of isolated surveys. To seriously analyze fluctuations in public opinion on abortion, one needs to consider responses to the same question, preferably asked by the same survey research firm, over a period of time. Indeed, surveys have always shown high public support for Roe v. Wade.
As Dave Andrusko points out in NRL News Today, there are several reasons for this. First, not all Americans realize that Roe v. Wade dealt with abortion. Some people think the decision involved school desegregation or some other issue. Furthermore, many Americans think Roe v. Wade only legalized first trimester abortions. Others think that overturning Roe would ban abortion everywhere, instead of returning the issue to the states.
A poll released by Rasmussen after the election showed that “pro-choice” sentiment has increased to 54 percent, while only 38 percent of respondents described themselves as “pro-life.” This caused some concern among pro-life activists. However, a closer look at Rasmussen’s polling indicates Rasmussen polls have always shown higher pro-choice sentiment than Gallup polls. This might be because Rasmussen surveys likely voters, while Gallup surveys the population as a whole.
More importantly, the results of Rasmussen’s November poll showed very little change in abortion attitudes from a poll the firm took back in April. Rasmussen’s April survey also showed that likely voters were more likely to describe themselves as “pro-choice” than “pro-life,” by a 51–40 margin. In short, the “war on women” rhetoric and the inopportune statements by U.S. Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock only resulted in a three-percentage-point gain in “pro-choice” sentiment—a difference that falls within the poll’s margin of error.
More evidence of stable abortion attitudes comes from a recent Marist Poll that was commissioned by the Knights of Columbus. It found that 43 percent of Americans currently identify themselves as pro-life. This is very similar to the 40 percent that identified as pro-life in January 2012 and the 45 percent that identified as pro-life in June 2010. Similarly, the poll indicates that 56 percent of Americans currently feel that abortion should either always be illegal or legal only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the other. Five separate Marist surveys taken since October 2008 consistently show that at least 51 percent of Americans hold this position. Again, there is little evidence that Americans are becoming more sympathetic toward legal abortion.
The Knights of Columbus should be commended for commissioning this Marist survey. The mainstream media enjoys reporting on polls that purportedly show strong public sentiment in favor of legal abortion. However, by asking people what they thought about abortion in specific circumstances, Marist is able to present a more nuanced and a more accurate view of public attitudes toward abortion. Furthermore, pro-life groups should more frequently commission surveys on attitudes toward incremental pro-life laws. This would demonstrate that many short-term legislative objectives of the pro-life movement enjoy broad public support.
Even though most polls have shown little fluctuation in abortion attitudes, some pundits have argued that the recent political gains made by the Democratic party will lead to a bright future for people who support legal abortion. In an article onThink Progress, Zach Beauchamp cites a study by political scientists Thomas Carsey and Geoffrey Layman which shows that over time, people often change their abortion attitudes to match the political party they generally support. This study looks interesting, methodologically rigorous, and well done. Yet the specific study that Beauchamp cites never actually appeared in a peer-reviewed journal.
Now, a later version of the Carsey and Layman study did appear in the American Journal of Political Science in 2006. It shows that although there is statistically significant evidence that individuals change their views to match those of the political party they support, the shift in attitudes is relatively slight. Indeed, attitude changes only occur among those who are aware of the differences between the two parties on a particular issue, but for whom the issue is not particularly salient. To the extent that Democrats soft-pedal their support of abortion to working-class voters, Democratic party affiliation may not shift public sentiment on abortion as much as Beauchamp suggests.
Regardless, pro-lifers still have their work cut out for them. As Ramesh Ponnuru points out in National Review Online, the Democrats’ emphasis on abortion and contraception this election cycle was successful in many respects. It likely succeeded in increasing turnout among pro-choice voters. It probably also made pro-choice voters more likely to cast their vote based on the abortion issue. But a serious analysis of survey data over time provides little evidence that this fall’s election cycle substantially shifted public opinion in favor of legal abortion.
Michael New is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New. This post first appeared at First Things.