New poll reveals warning signs for GOP on abortion ahead of midterms

·West Coast Correspondent
·6 min read

Many right-wing politicians and pundits have spent the week rejoicing over Monday's momentous report that five conservative Supreme Court justices appear poised to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that established a constitutional right to abortion almost half a century ago.

Yet a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll, one of the first to be conducted entirely after the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s controversial draft opinion, suggests that Republicans risk overplaying their hand on abortion ahead of the 2022 midterms — and that Democrats could benefit if the hot-button issue is on the ballot.

The survey of 1,577 U.S. adults, which was conducted from May 3 to May 6, found that registered voters initially preferred a generic Democrat (44%) over a generic Republican (39%) by 5 percentage points when asked how they would vote in their district if the congressional election were being held today.

But when voters were asked to choose instead between a “pro-choice Democrat” and a “pro-life Republican,” GOP support fell to 31% while Democratic support held steady — more than doubling the gap between the two candidates, to 13 percentage points.

By the same token, 69% of Americans say they would “oppose Congress passing a law that bans abortion nationwide.” The Washington Post reported this week that conservative groups have already met with their congressional allies about a possible “nationwide ban on the procedure if Republicans retake power in Washington,” and several GOP senators have started sketching out policy details.

“I think you could expect that pro-life activists would push for federal protections” if the Supreme Court overturns Roe, GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota told NBC News. “I wouldn't take that off the table.”

A mere 22% of Americans say they would favor such a law — while more than twice as many (48%) would support a law "that keeps abortion as legal and accessible nationwide as it had been under Roe.”

These warning signs for Republicans reflect a deeper, and remarkably consistent, pattern. On question after question, only about a third of Americans say they agree with the transformative decision the court is now careening toward — that is, a decision to end all federal protections for abortion, allowing state legislatures to restrict or ban the procedure as they please.

Abortion rights activists hold up signs at a rally in front of the Supreme Court building on May 5 in Washington, D.C.
Abortion rights activists rally in front of the Supreme Court building on Thursday. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Just 31% of U.S. adults, for instance, say Roe v. Wade should be overturned. Just 34% say abortion should be illegal in “all” or “most” cases. Only 33% say they want their own states to make all or most abortions illegal. And just 30% say abortion is “something that individual states should be [able to] outlaw.”

In contrast, nearly twice as many Americans see abortion as “a constitutional right that women in all states should have some access to” (56%) and say the procedure should be legal in all or most cases (55%).

The question now is whether this lopsided dynamic — a small minority in favor of the court’s likely decision and a clear majority opposed to it — will be enough to energize otherwise unenthusiastic Democrats and alter the course of an election that had been trending in the GOP’s direction.

The new Yahoo News/YouGov poll holds some possible hints. A full 28% of pro-choice Americans, for instance, now say they will vote only for a candidate who “shares [their] view on abortion.” Among Americans who identify as "pro-life" — who are traditionally seen as the more motivated group — that number is significantly lower (21%).

The new survey also measured a sizable jump in dissatisfaction among Democrats, with the number who say "things in this country are off on the wrong track" rising 8 points (to 43%) since last month, likely because of the leaked draft opinion. Neither Republicans nor independents shifted nearly as much. Whether such unease translates into turnout, however, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, 20% of Democrats — including 22% of Democratic women and 27% of liberal Democrats — now select abortion as “the most important issue” for this year’s election, ahead of inflation (19%), health care (16%) and climate change (14%). In November 2021, just 4% of Democrats, 6% of Democratic women and 5% of liberal Democrats selected abortion as their most important issue.

Republicans (6%) and independents (6%) are far less inclined to cite abortion as the most important issue.

Already, Democratic candidates in key races from Georgia to Pennsylvania to Texas are seizing on the likely end of Roe to argue that voting Republican — or sitting out the election — will pave the way for those states (and possibly Congress as a whole) to outlaw abortion going forward. Many Republican candidates, meanwhile, are jockeying to prove they’re more anti-abortion than their GOP rivals as they aim to appeal to an increasingly right-wing primary electorate.

However, it’s still unclear how these new arguments might reshape the midterms.

For one thing, President Biden's job-approval rating — 40% approve vs. 52% disapprove in the new survey — remains low, and inflation (33%) is still a far more important issue for the general electorate than abortion (10%).

Ultimately, most Americans have mixed feelings about abortion itself, making it hard to predict how the upheaval around Roe will play out politically. According to the new poll, more than half of U.S. adults (54%) say they know someone who has had an abortion, while 27% say they do not, 13% say they’re not sure and 6% prefer not to say. Personal awareness of the abortion issue is higher among women (60%) than among men (48%) and also higher among those who describe themselves as pro-choice (64%) than among those who say they are "pro-life" (54%).

Abortion-rights and anti-abortion advocates confront each other in front of the Supreme Court building on May 4 in Washington, D.C.
Abortion-rights and anti-abortion advocates confront each other in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

That familiarity helps inform and harden views on abortion in a way that differs from most other public policy issues. The country is more closely split on the morality of abortion, for instance, than on its legality, with 46% saying abortion is morally acceptable in all or most cases and 40% saying it is morally unacceptable in all or most cases.

Similarly, far more Americans believe abortions should be "generally legal" during the first three months of pregnancy (61%) than during months three to six (32%) or the last three months (19%). And motivation matters, too, with roughly three-quarters of Americans saying abortions should be generally legal "when the woman's life is endangered" (76%) or "when the pregnancy is caused by rape or incest” (71%) — while less than half say the same "when the woman does not want to go through with the pregnancy for any reason" (44%).

A separate policy question captures some of these nuances. When offered three choices, just 24% of Americans prefer to “overturn Roe v. Wade altogether” rather than “let Roe v. Wade stand as it is” (42%). But another 13% want to “limit” Roe by letting states outlaw abortion “two months earlier” in a pregnancy “than the current law permits.” If the Supreme Court were to let the Mississippi law at the center of the current case stand — the “middle way” that Chief Justice John Roberts reportedly prefers — that is precisely what would happen.

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The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,577 U.S. adults interviewed online from May 3 to 6, 2022. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or nonvote) and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.7%.

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