Opinion A surprise poll finding shows the GOP’s Dobbs problem getting worse

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By Greg Sargent
Columnist |
September 16, 2022 at 12:10 p.m. EDT
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). (Mariam Zuhaib/AP)
It was a long-accepted rule in U.S. politics: Yes, a majority of Americans are pro-choice, but on the antiabortion side, there is a lopsided intensity of feeling. That notion was often given great weight in parsing the politics of abortion.
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But a new poll from the New York Times and Siena College provides another reminder that the rule might be obsolete. If that’s right, it could scramble expectations about the midterm elections.
After the Dobbs v. Jackson decision in June, Republicans and some pundits remained confident that political intensity would ultimately be driven by “real” concerns, such as inflation and crime. But a solid majority now appears to feel pretty intensely about preserving abortion rights.
Specifically, the Times-Siena poll finds that 62 percent of registered voters oppose the decision overturning Roe v. Wade, while 30 percent support it. But the poll also asked how strongly people feel about it, and this was the result:
  • 52 percent of registered voters strongly oppose the ruling overturning Roe, vs. only 19 percent who strongly support it
  • 57 percent of women strongly oppose the ruling, vs. 15 percent who strongly support it
The poll offers other grounds for concluding abortion is shifting our politics. It finds that 62 percent of voters favor keeping abortion always or mostly legal, versus only 31 percent who think it should be mostly or always illegal.
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What’s more, the poll finds Democrats with a slight edge in the generic House ballot matchup, 46 percent to 44 percent. This is the case even though Republicans still enjoy sizable advantages on such issues as the economy — and a plurality of voters say the economy is most important to them.
How is this possible? Well, 9 percent of voters who trust Republicans more on the economy plan to vote Democratic. The Times suggests abortion might be a key reason for this, quoting voters expressing deep concerns about the economy but also real anger at the GOP over the end of abortion rights.
Still, the pro-abortion intensity gap seems particularly notable. And it’s backed up by other data: The Democratic firm TargetSmart has found women dramatically outpacing men in new registrations to vote in states where reproductive rights are at stake.
Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart, says the new poll’s intensity gap finding “absolutely matches what we’ve seen in voter registration.” As Bonier told me: “Women are so clearly more engaged than men in this election. Especially younger women.”
In fairness, not all data shows this intensity gap. A Post-Schar School poll in July found that higher percentages of Americans who want abortion to be illegal are certain to vote this fall. But that poll also found that a whopping 65 percent view the ruling as a major loss of women’s rights.
Meanwhile, other recent polls have found that Democrats are more motivated to vote by the ruling, that disapproval of the decision is overwhelming, and that support for keeping abortion legal is at new highs. And as my Post colleague David Byler has detailed, recent special elections offer clear evidence that Democratic turnout has been “supercharged."
Bonier points out that this pro-abortion intensity gap could mark a deeper shift in our politics. He notes that intensity has long been on the anti-abortion side precisely because pro-choice constituencies didn’t actually believe the court would end abortion rights.
“People didn’t view it as a credible threat,” Bonier told me.
At the same time, as long as Roe stood, Republicans could use right wing anger at the continued existence of abortion rights to motivate their base. But now, notes Bonier, the pro-abortion-rights side is infuriated, because the end of those rights “suddenly happened.”
You know whose political behavior clearly confirms this? That of Republicans.
Note that GOP candidates have been furiously been seeking ways to defuse the energy on the pro-choice side. They’ve suggested nothing will change in blue states and have worked to erase evidence of their true intentions to dramatically restrict abortion or outlaw it entirely.
That’s why it created such raw divisions among Republicans when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) revealed that a GOP-controlled congress will vote to implement a national abortion ban. Republicans had hoped to obscure the true threatening implications of Roe’s demise, to blunt the backlash, but the threat simply cannot be papered over or “messaged” away.
This is in part because many on the right just do want to severely restrict or ban abortion nationally, and they want the GOP to remain committed to this goal, at a time when Republicans badly need to disguise it.
The result is that “five decades of Republican unity in opposition to abortion rights have collapsed into discord and indecision,” as the Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reports.
Why Republicans were caught off guard by the backlash is an intriguing question. Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg suggests: “The right’s ideological abortion bubble made it impossible for them to imagine that the pro-abortion majority would rise up and fundamentally change this election.”
It remains to be seen how fundamentally all these dynamics will change the election, of course. But the possibility that it could substantially alter the election’s trajectory is now plainly a real one.