Abortion is a peculiar political issue. Public attitudes about its morality and legality are highly complex, yet strongly fixed. It consistently ranks among the least important issues to the electorate in choosing a president, yet it is one of the most visible election issues because candidates use it to energize their base supporters.
In most of the recent presidential elections, the winning candidate's margin of victory has been large enough that, given the small number of single-issue abortion voters, the candidates' positions on abortion have played only a minor role in the election outcome. But if 2004 is anything like 2000 (an election decided by just a handful of electoral votes), then any issue that can influence even a fraction of the electorate will be important. The challenge for George W. Bush and John Kerry will be to present their different stances on abortion in a way that will attract the most support, while offending the smallest number of voters.
The candidates will be focusing their attention on the handful of states where the margin of victory for either Bush or Al Gore in 2000 was particularly narrow -- the so-called "battleground states." Similarly, politically independent -- or "swing" -- voters will probably be courted with more intensity than staunch Republicans and Democrats. So, could the abortion views of these two important populations -- residents of battleground states and political independents -- affect the presidential campaign and its outcome?
Americans Evenly Divided on Abortion
Two Gallup questions on abortion, asked in January 2004*, highlight the sharp divide among Americans on the issue. They are closely divided in their satisfaction with current abortion policies: 45% of Americans say they are generally satisfied with current policies, while 46% are generally dissatisfied.
Separately, Gallup asked, "Would you like to see abortion laws in this country made more strict, less strict, or remain as they are?" Four in 10 believe abortion laws should remain as they are. Nearly as many (37%) believe abortion laws should be made more strict, while about half that number (20%) believe the laws should be made less strict.
Not surprisingly, the pattern of abortion views differs across the three segments of the Election 2000 map. In the 22 states that Bush won by five or more points in 2000 (excluding Alaska, which is not included in Gallup's continental U.S. survey), the net differential among those who want abortion laws to be more strict (46%), rather than less strict (17%), is 29 percentage points. This compares with a net "more strict" figure of only six percentage points in the 10 states won handily by Gore (excluding Hawaii).
The abortion views of residents in the 16 battleground states (where the margin of victory for Bush or Gore in 2000 was less than five percentage points) fall about halfway between these extremes -- the net "more strict" figure is 14 percentage points.
A similar pattern, only more exaggerated, emerges by party identification. A majority of Republicans -- 52% -- favor making abortion laws more strict, versus only 14% who favor making them less strict, for a net "more strict" score of 38 percentage points. By contrast, Democrats tilt slightly in favor of making the laws less rather than more strict, with a negative net differential "more strict" of three percentage points. Independents fall squarely in between at a net 17 points.
The message these data carry for Bush and Kerry seems to be that they should moderate their public pronouncements on abortion when targeting battleground state residents and swing voters.
While those independent and battleground-state voters who favor stricter abortion laws outnumber those who favor less strict laws, they don't represent a majority when those who favor keeping abortion laws the same are factored in. This should serve as a caution to Bush, who may not want to come out in support of reversing Roe v. Wade or otherwise endangering the general legality of abortion.
Similarly, Kerry should heed the tendency of battleground and swing voters to favor stricter, rather than looser, abortion laws. Opposing popular restrictions on abortion -- such as parental consent, informed consent for women, and laws prohibiting partial-birth abortion -- could paint him as a pro-abortion extremist and turn off a significant segment of voters.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 12-15, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.