Interesting, not so much as a serious gauge of public views of abortion as a gauge of public views on who’s driving the agenda in Washington. After all, regardless of how they identify, most Americans aren’t pro-choice or pro-life across the board. Last I checked, a durable majority is pro-choice during the first trimester and pro-life during the third. Even in today’s poll, 36 percent say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances and another 19 percent say it should be legal in only “a few” circumstances — a majority of 55 percent who oppose abortion on demand, notwithstanding the “pro-choice” numbers. (Those who say abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances tally just 42 percent.) Which is to say, when asked whether “pro-choice” or “pro-life” best summarizes their views, how Americans respond probably has more to do with broader political currents than with any sea change on abortion itself.
Back to the pre-Obama status quo?
Except for a post-9/11 surge for “pro-life,” which is itself proof that spikes in support for one party or the other on unrelated issues can affect how people identify on this particular issue, “pro-choice” was reliably ahead until 2009. Then Democrats assumed total control of the lawmaking branches and suddenly “pro-life” leaped ahead, dipping below “pro-choice” only briefly in 2011 until now. What’s happening there, I think, isn’t so much changing biases for or against abortion as an abiding bias towards the status quo. With Bush in the White House until 2009, fencesitters on abortion likely feared that the GOP would go too far in restricting the practice. That calculus flipped once Obama was sworn in. And now, with Obama nearing the end of his presidency and Congress back in Republican hands (and passing bills banning late-term abortion), it’s flipped again. If the GOP beats Hillary next year, it won’t surprise me if “pro-choice” self-identifiers return to the levels of the mid-90s.
Related to that point, another bit of data:
See what I mean? Democratic “pro-choice” numbers are flat up to and including 2009, when Obama took office, but the rest of the country suddenly grew much chillier once he was sworn in. Independents, who had never dropped below 50 percent support in the eight years previous, suddenly dipped to 42 percent; Republicans, who had never dropped below 30 percent support, declined to 23 percent. And both factions stayed more or less at those subdued levels in the years following — until now, when not only have they returned to pre-Obama levels but Democratic “pro-choice” support has bounced way up to 68 percent. Again, I think that’s a backlash to the midterms. With the GOP in charge of Congress, abortion fencesitters in all three parties now worry more about Republican restrictions than Democratic expansionism. Even the blip back towards “pro-choice” in 2011 makes sense in that context: That was the year, of course, that the GOP reclaimed a House majority after an historic landslide. Fencesitters may have worried that conservative momentum would lead to new limits on abortion, even with Obama in the White House. That worry was short-lived.
The only numbers from Gallup that aren’t easily explained by the “status quo bias” theory are these, which should worry Republicans a little:
One of the staples of pro-life rhetoric is that, contrary to popular media belief, there’s no great gender gap on abortion. And that’s true — mostly. Over most of the last 14 years, there’s been none; on the more limited question of late-term abortion, as of 2013 women supported a ban 50/44. You can read the graph above as well as I can, though: For the last several years, there’s been a mild but steady gender gap in which women are five or six — or, most recently, eight — points more likely to identify as “pro-choice” than men are. Probably that’s an artifact of Democratic “war on women” messaging, and quite possibly it doesn’t much matter given what I said up top about how opaque “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are in explaining someone’s position on abortion. It could be that women hold the same positions they’ve always held on when abortion should be legal but nonetheless are more likely to identify as “pro-choice” because Democratic identity-politics pressure, especially on younger single women, has made support for abortion a criterion of “empowerment.” Still, that gender gap is not a trend that the GOP would want to see continue. Keep an eye on it in polls in the months ahead.