August 22, 2012

The Complicated Politics of Abortion

Abortion has emerged as an issue in the 2012 presidential race, following Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin’s controversial comments about abortion and “legitimate rape.” In recent years, narrow majorities of the public have consistently said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The Democratic Party is widely favored over the GOP on the issue of abortion. At the same time, however, abortion is viewed as a much more important issue by voters opposed to legal abortion than by its supporters.

Both Parties Are Divided. Pew Research Center polls conducted over the past two years find that most Democrats (65%) say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases; most Republicans (57%) say it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Republicans are divided over the extent to which abortion should be illegal: 22% say it should be illegal in all cases while 35% say it should be illegal in most cases.

There is no consensus among Democrats either: 26% say abortion should be legal in all cases and 39% in most cases.

Democrats Favored. In March, Democrats held a wide lead as the party that better represents people’s views on abortion: 49% of voters said the Democratic Party better reflected their views on abortion compared with 33% who said the Republican Party.
And in July, Barack Obama held a comparable advantage over Mitt Romney as the candidate best able to reflect people’s views on social issues like abortion and gay rights: 50% said Obama could do the best job of reflecting people’s views on these issues; just 36% said Romney could do best.

Women and Abortion. There are only modest gender differences in opinions about legal abortion. But women are much more likely than men to favor the Democrats and Obama on this issue. Women voters also place greater importance on this issue than do men.

Narrow majorities of both women (55%) and men (51%) say that abortions should be legal in all or most cases.

However, women voters favor the Democrats on abortion by 52% to 32%. And Obama’s lead over Romney is about as large on social issues like abortion and gay rights (53% to 32%). Men side with the Democrats and Obama by 10 points and six points, respectively.

Women also are more likely than men to view abortion as a top voting issue. In April, 44% of women said that the issue of abortion would be very important in their decision about who to vote for. Only about a third of men (34%) said that abortion would be very important to their vote.

Abortion More Important Issue to Opponents. Far more opponents than supporters of legal abortion view this as a very important voting issue. Fully 73% of those who say that abortion should be illegal in all cases rate abortion as a very important voting issue; 55% of those who say abortion should be illegal in most cases also rate it as very important.

By contrast, just a third of those who favor legal abortion in all cases, and just 22% who say it should be legal in most cases, rate abortion as very important to their vote. About four-in-ten voters in each group (44% legal in all cases, 42% legal in most) say abortion will be not at all important in their decision about whom to vote for.

Among opponents of legal abortion, large majorities of both women (64%) and men (59%) say the issue will be very important to their vote. But among supporters of legal abortion, more women than men say it will be very important (34% vs. 19%).