The Corner

Politics & Policy

New Polls Show Party Polarization on Abortion

Last month, Gallup released its annual poll on abortion attitudes in the United States, showing that 46 percent of Americans identify as “pro-life and 49 percent identify as “pro-choice.” In the 1990s and early 2000s, the pro-life position made some impressive gains in the court of public opinion, but over the last eight years, there has been a veritable public-opinion stalemate on this issue. Of the past 13 polls Gallup has conducted since 2009, six indicated a “pro-choice” plurality, six indicated a “pro-life” plurality, and one was a tie.

This most recent Gallup poll was particularly useful because it broke down abortion attitudes by partisan affiliation, revealing some fascinating historical trends. Interestingly, the percentage of Democrats identifying as “pro-choice” has increased from 56 percent to 71 percent since 2001.  Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll released last week found that the percentage of Democrats who felt abortion should be legal in “all or most cases” has increased by 11 percentage points since 1995.

Much has been written about how the Republican party became home to pro-life voters and politicians. Journalists and researchers have paid less attention, however, to how the Democratic party’s voters and elected officials have become increasingly supportive of legal abortion. For many years, an important part of the Democratic party’s electoral coalition consisted of ethnic, Catholic voters, many of whom came of age during the Great Depression. These voters tended to be liberal on economic issues but moderate-to-conservative on social issues.

Savvy Democratic politicians in many parts of the country knew that aggressively liberal stances on social issues might alienate these voters and, as a result, found ways to moderate their stances. When he ran for president in 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned on making abortion “rare.” Prior to 2016, few Democratic congressmen publicly supported taxpayer funding of abortion through Medicaid. During the past few election cycles, though, many of those older, ethnic voters passed away, leaving behind a more socially liberal Democratic party.

Since the 2016 election, Democrats have had many public, serious disagreements about their long-term political strategy with regard to social issues. Some have argued that the party should take a more moderate stance on a range of issues, including abortion. A number of analysts have argued that Hillary Clinton’s opposition to the Hyde Amendment — which prevents federal Medicaid money from being used to pay for abortion procedures — hurt her politically. Furthermore, the most recent Gallup poll shows that independent voters have actually become more pro-life since 2001.

Overall, a more moderate stance on abortion might help future Democratic candidates win over some white working-class voters who chose to support Donald Trump in 2016. Unfortunately, these recent Gallup and Pew polls both show that a socially moderate Democrat would probably have a very difficult time receiving his party’s nomination.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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