A New Poll Explains Why Republicans Keep Pushing Unpopular Abortion Restrictions

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Since the Dobbs ruling came down last year, it’s been taken as an article of faith that the success of Republicans’ half-century quest to overturn abortion rights would prove to be a political miscalculation. Polls showed more than 60% of Americans consistently thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Exit polls in last year’s elections indicated 60% of voters thought the same. Plenty of pundits—including, admittedly, The D.C. Brief—saw abortion rights as a deciding factor that saved Democrats from decimation at the polls in 2022 and could do so again in 2024. As the Republicans prepared for a 2024 nominating contest, there were plenty of reasons to think the contenders were chasing a doomed strategy in pushing for more limits on abortion counter to public opinion. 

Well, maybe not. At least not if they want to make it onto the November ballot in the first place. 

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In the first New York Times/ Siena College poll of the likely Republican primary electorate next year, it appears the perceived softening on abortion rights has not spread as far as previously thought, with 56% of respondents believing abortion should mostly or always be illegal. It’s the clearest sign yet that candidates talking about a new national ban aren’t chasing a narrow, fervent segment of their party, but a clear majority.

Ever since Dobbs triggered new abortion bans and limits around the country and talk of even more restrictions, more than a few Republicans have said their party was effectively alienating women at the polls, especially those in the suburbs with college degrees. But looking through the detailed cross sections of the data, it’s not entirely irrational for these GOP leaders to be chasing this agenda—at least insofar as they’re looking to win primary voters. (General election voters, to be clear, have shown far less interest in abortion restrictions and, to this point, are not especially friendly to an agenda that started with abortion and could creep into other aspects of reproductive health like contraception.)

Within the Republican universe, there are no statistical differences among urban, suburban, and rural voters on abortion. Men and women answer almost identically. While Republicans with a college education are more likely to support abortion rights than those without one, the difference is not significant enough to give those favoring abortion access a plurality let alone a majority. In fact, nowhere in those critical slivers of the electorate registers a winning majority in support of those rights. In other words, at least at this point, the Republican primary universe is not primed to reward those same women who in 2022 told reporters that abortion had soured them on the GOP. Right now, the party’s membership is ready to weigh in on a nominee—and they want someone who promises to fight against restoring abortion rights.

To be sure, the Times polling shows a handful of subsets among the GOP electorate where opposition to abortion isn’t the majority position, including Black voters, those who are not white evangelicals, those who don’t affiliate with a faith group, Biden voters from 2020, those who say they get their news from mainstream sources, and Republicans who say they want someone other than Trump or DeSantis at the top of the ticket. At the same time, it’s essentially a tie on the question among Republicans in the Northeast.

All of which is to say this: the Republican Party certainly is the party for those who were happy about the end of Roe. But the GOP is by no means monolithic. Trump’s fuzzy position on future abortion restrictions reflects that sentiment. The former President is owning the horse race right now with 54% support, and only DeSantis, the Florida Governor, is hitting double digits with 17%. As the Times’ polling maestro Nate Cohn notes, no candidate who enjoys a 20-point leg up at this point over the last half century has gone on to lose the nomination.

But the current polls—working largely on a function of name ID and media exposure at this point—might mask some uncertainty. Cohn is right about the historical advantages of such a lead six months before voters start to have a say. Left unsaid is this: none has faced such legal peril so far outside of his or her control. No one this cycle has set foot on a debate stage, and there’s a decent shot that Trump will skip the first debate on Aug. 23 just to prove his pluck. That’s why it’s far too soon to write off any of the rivals, especially with Trump’s known legal woes, and at least two other jurisdictions on standby with potential criminal indictments at any time. It’s without a question Trump’s party, but not necessarily his monopoly. 

The question remains, however: what does the Republican Party want from its presidential nominee on abortion in a post-Dobbs world? An aggressive pusher of new restrictions may appear strong among the hard-right GOP, but wobbly at best with the broader electorate that still supports abortion rights.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com