clock menu more-arrow no yes

Should Democrats run anti-abortion candidates in red states? A new poll casts doubt on the strategy.

Democrats may have more to lose than to gain from compromising on abortion.

Protesters in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 2017.
Protesters in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 2017.
UIG via Getty Images

Do Democrats need to oppose abortion in order to win in red states?

That question has led to divisions on the left in recent months, as some — including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — have argued that Democrats may need to compromise on reproductive rights if they want to increase their influence nationwide.

But a new poll calls this approach into question. Just 8 percent of Democrats would be more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes abortion, according to a report released by the polling firm PerryUndem earlier this month, ahead of Roe v. Wade’s 45th anniversary on Monday. Meanwhile, 31 percent of Republicans would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights.

The findings suggest it may be Republicans, not Democrats, who have the most to gain from broadening their approach on reproductive health. That’s something Democrats may want to consider in the runup to this year’s midterms.

Dropping support for abortion rights may be a losing strategy for Democrats

In December, PerryUndem surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,029 voters around the country. The researchers asked questions aimed at capturing the nuances of Americans’ thinking about the issue of abortion, beyond pro-life and pro-choice labels that don’t fully describe many people’s views. Several questions had to do with voting preferences.

In general, abortion appeared to be a bigger issue for Democrats than for Republicans — 71 percent of Democrats said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supported women having the right to an abortion, while just 36 percent of Republicans said a candidate’s opposition to that right would help win their support. Thirty percent of Republicans said a candidate’s position on abortion made no difference to their vote, while only 20 percent of Democrats said the same.

Of course, fielding anti-abortion candidates isn’t just a strategy to appeal to socially conservative Democrats — it’s also a move to entice independents. But according to PerryUndem’s data, that may not work so well either — 46 percent of independents told the firm they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who supported abortion rights, and just 15 percent said they’d be more inclined to vote for someone who opposed them.

How a candidate’s support for abortion influences voters, by party identification
How a candidate’s support for abortion influences voters, by party identification.
Courtesy of PerryUndem

PerryUndem researchers also looked at how Clinton and Trump voters thought about candidates’ abortion positions. They found that while 27 percent of Trump voters were more likely to vote for a candidate who supported abortion rights, just 6 percent of Clinton voters were more likely to vote for an anti-abortion candidate. In other words, Trump voters were about four times more likely than Clinton voters to cross party lines on abortion rights.

All of this suggests that “Democrats may have more to lose than to gain by widening their tent,” according to the report. By going after the 8 percent of Democrats who want a candidate who opposes abortion, the party risks losing the 71 percent of Democratic voters who want their candidates to support abortion rights, Tresa Undem, a partner at PerryUndem, told Vox.

Of course, polls are not elections, and abortion is never the only issue at play. PerryUndem’s data can’t predict who will actually turn out for the elections this year and beyond, or how voters’ feelings on abortion will influence their decision to cast a ballot or stay home.

But the recent example of Alabama suggests that support for abortion is by no means always disastrous for a red-state Democrat. Leading up to the special election for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s former Senate seat in December, Republican candidate Roy Moore’s campaign focused intensely on the issue of abortion. Moore’s opponent, Doug Jones, had said he supported late-term abortions when medically necessary. Moore’s wife, Kayla, claimed that Jones supported “full-term abortions,” and another Moore surrogate said, “we shouldn’t be able to suck a child’s brains out at the moment before birth.”

As Ed Kilgore explained at New York magazine, the Moore campaign’s rationale was that turnout in an off-year special election would be low, and talking about abortion would motivate enough voters on the far right to push Moore over the top.

“In a close low-turnout election like the one on December 12, it doesn’t take a lot of movement to make the difference between victory and defeat,” Kilgore wrote. “Moore is gambling that the mother of all emotional issues for social conservatives will do the trick.”

Though a majority of voters who said abortion should be illegal in most or all cases cast their votes for Moore in December, their numbers weren’t enough. Jones is now in the Senate, buoyed by high turnout among black voters, especially black women.

Several factors were at play in the Alabama special election — reports by multiple women that Moore had pursued them sexually or romantically when they were teenagers; Moore’s comment that America was great at a time when “we had slavery”; Alabama voters’ feelings about President Trump. But the fact remains that support for abortion rights didn’t cost Jones victory in a conservative Southern state, even when his opponent tried to make abortion a core issue of the campaign.

Between now and November’s midterm elections, we’ll surely hear more arguments about the wisdom of compromising on reproductive rights. But the PerryUndem findings suggest that when it comes to the issue of abortion, tacking right may not be smart politics.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.