We probably don’t need to explain how views on the availability of abortion overlap with partisan politics. The issue has been one of the most polarizing in American politics for decades, with Democrats broadly advocating expanded availability and Republicans generally opposing the procedure.
We can be more precise than that. Seventy percent of Democrats think abortion should be legal in all or most cases; 34 percent of Republicans agree. That’s from PRRI’s new national poll on the subject, published Tuesday. When PRRI polled on the subject in 2014, incidentally, the gap between the parties was narrower. Then, 67 percent of Democrats supported legal abortion, as did 39 percent of Republicans.
What jumped out at me from PRRI’s new poll, though, was the state-by-state map of support for abortion in most cases. This map, to be specific.
At a glance, it looks something like a map of recent presidential elections. Low support for abortion in the heavily Republican Plains states; strong support for it on the bright-blue coasts. Upon a closer look, though, some nuance emerges. Ohio and Illinois, which diverged on their 2016 vote margins by 25 percentage points, express about the same level of support for legal abortion? Florida is more supportive than Minnesota?
Comparing support for abortion in PRRI’s poll to 2016 results, we see (as we would expect) that there’s a strong correlation between the two. States that more robustly support abortion voted more heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Those that are less supportive of abortion voted more heavily for President Trump. (The diagonal line on the below graph represents the general relationship between the two.)
There are eight states, though, in which a majority of respondents in PRRI’s poll expressed support for legal abortion but which also backed Trump. Of those, his widest margin was in Alaska, which he won by 15 points. On average, he won these eight states by about 5 points.
Notice, though, that the list also includes the three states that narrowly flipped from blue to red from 2012 to 2016, handing Trump the presidency. Those are Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
One can take two possible lessons from this. The first is that the states that more broadly support abortion (particularly those three) might be more in play in 2020. The second, though, is that support for abortion wasn’t enough for Trump to lose the state in 2016. Trump was explicit about his opposition to abortion on the campaign trail. The eight states supported him, anyway.
Of course, that was before Trump as president worked to introduce significant obstacles for access to abortion, such as his appointments to the Supreme Court and lower benches. The first national election after Trump was elected was in 2018, when Democrats retook the House.
In that election, there were five states Trump won in 2016 where Democrats won more votes in House races two years later: Arizona, Iowa — and the three swing states.
In each case, the states that voted blue in 2018 were ones where a majority support access to legal abortion in most cases.
We can look forward to 2020 a bit more directly by considering Trump’s own approval ratings. There are six states that Trump won in 2016 where support for legal abortion is below 50 percent — but so was Trump’s approval in 2018.
Three of those states — Georgia, North Carolina and Texas — have popped up on pundits’ radar screens as ones to watch in 2020. On average, Trump won the six states above by 14 points, but he won those three by an average of 6 points.
There’s nothing magic about 50 percent support for legal abortion. As we said at the outset, it correlates to partisan politics, and the variations we see in the charts may largely be attributable to statistical noise. It’s a reminder, though, that Trump’s all-in approach to abortion didn’t stem his party’s losses in the House in 2018 and didn’t earn him robust support in approval polling.
In 2016, several states that generally support access to abortion backed Trump. One key question is: Will states that generally oppose access to abortion vote against him in 2020?