World·Analysis

Will abortion upend American politics? Here's what the early polling tells us

Early polling on the abortion issue in the United States shows subtle attitude shifts among the public and tells us about whether it has any potential to shape the midterm elections in November.

The short answer: Voters aren't budging. The longer answer is polls show subtle shifts

Demonstrators are shown outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on May 3, after a leaked draft opinion suggested the court could be poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

If abortion is about to transform American politics, it's only barely registering so far in the initial public reaction to a draft decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The early numbers don't speak to a seismic shift in opinion. A faint rumble, perhaps.

We now have several polls to judge public reaction to last week's bombshell news of an unpublished ruling by the country's top court.

That leaked draft suggests the court is set to overturn a five-decade precedent that abortion access is a constitutional right and would instead let states set their own policy.

Democrats have quickly pivoted to abortion as a potential winning message in this fall's state and congressional midterm elections.

The issue is seen as one way to galvanize young voters, whose recent disenchantment puts the majority party at risk of a severe wipeout.

Making abortion the ballot-box question would also allow Democrats to side with the majority of Americans who consistently tell pollsters they want Roe v. Wade to remain intact.

That strategy was on display this week as Democrats held a no-hope vote in Congress to pass a law on abortion rights, then turned it into a midterm message.

Vice-President Kamala Harris stood outside the Senate chamber and said abortion is now an issue for the voters to decide — the argument being that holding the Senate would allow Democrats to confirm more pro-choice judges and perhaps even pass a law if they win extra seats.

After Democrats were unable to pass a vote in the Senate this week on abortion rights, Vice-President Kamala Harris told reporters that the issue will now have to be decided by voters in this fall's midterm elections. (Julia Nikhinson/Reuters)

Harris walked up to the cameras after her party fell short of a majority, as West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin opposed the abortion measure.

"[This] makes clear that a priority for all who care about this issue — the priority should be to elect pro-choice leaders," the vice-president said.

"At the local, the state and the federal level."

What the headline numbers say

U.S. President Joe Biden tweeted a similar message — as have numerous other Democrats who argue that only midterm election voters can prevent abortion rights from disappearing across an estimated two-dozen states if the Supreme Court draft decision holds when the ruling is ultimately handed down.

But those voters aren't budging. At least not yet.

What several new polls say in a nutshell is that Biden remains unpopular; his party remains in peril; and those numbers haven't changed at all.

WATCH | U.S. legal scholar says polls don't back reversing Roe v. Wade:

Polls don't support reversing Roe v. Wade, says U.S. legal scholar

2 months ago
Duration 3:29
U.S. law professor Kimberly Wehle says she wasn't surprised by the draft opinion that the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade.

"The early results suggest this is not going to be some panacea for Democrats," said Cameron Easley, a senior editor at the Morning Consult polling firm.

"Based on the data we're seeing right now, I think the answer to that question is no."

Presidential job approval is considered an indicator of the electorate's mood — and Biden's score remains weak and stagnant.

His 42 per cent approval rating is consistent across several large weekly surveys from two weeks earlier: by Morning ConsultIpsos and YouGov.

There's been a similar lack of movement in the congressional preference: The polling firms show no statistically significant change, with Democrats clinging to a tiny popular vote lead that would not likely be enough to retain control of Congress.

Now for the fine print

But a closer reading of the fine print of those surveys might give Democrats at least some miniature seedlings of hope.

There are signs of increased enthusiasm among Democratic voters. And that's a fundamental factor in midterm elections, as voter participation tends to be low, and little shifts in turnout can trigger seismic differences.

The latest Morning Consult poll, from May 6 to 9, found a sudden tightening of the so-called enthusiasm gap after months of Republicans expressing far greater eagerness to vote this year.

It showed that the percentage of Democrats describing themselves as "extremely enthusiastic" about voting this year jumped eight percentage points from two weeks ago.

Younger voters are key: They're especially supportive of abortion access, and their level of enthusiasm increased in the latest Morning Consult poll.

Last month, Republicans held a more daunting advantage, with their voters 12 percentage points more likely to call themselves extremely enthusiastic, compared with seven points now.

And respondents across different surveys were also more likely to describe abortion as a top issue for them in determining their vote this fall.

Top Senate Republicans, including leader Mitch McConnell, are shown in Washington on Tuesday. Republicans are heavily favoured to win the House of Representatives in U.S. midterm elections this November. What's less clear is the state of the Senate, which has significant power in shaping the courts. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

'Some inklings that things could be changing'

"It could be a leading indicator of something," said Kathy Frankovic, a representative of the YouGov firm.

"There are some inklings that things could be changing. But we really need to wait."

There are such inklings in different polls. The Monmouth University Polling Institute says abortion has surged to the top tier of issues voters find important, suddenly ranking alongside the economy and ahead of other topics. The same pollster says opinion of the Supreme Court has plunged.

WATCH | U.S. braces for fallout from abortion decision:

U.S. braces for fallout from Roe v. Wade decision

2 months ago
Duration 3:12
As activists hunker down outside the U.S. Supreme Court and lawmakers weighing next steps, many are bracing for a court decision poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, which has protected the right to abortion across the United States since 1973.

There are other data points telling a similar, albeit subtle, story.

YouGov finds abortion still ranking as far less important than the economy, but it's climbed up the priority list, particularly for Democrats — going from the top priority of just two per cent of Democratic voters to 10 per cent.

"That's [a] pretty big shift," Frankovic said.

That's why Easley offers three caveats to his broader takeaway that the current numbers don't look promising for Democrats.

His first caveat is that sudden burst of passion. That's a shift, with the wobbling economy and their party struggling to pass signature promises through Congress.

Of the looming abortion fight, Easley said: "It has revved up Democratic intensity a little bit."

His second caveat? Even a small shift in public opinion could make a difference in one or two close Senate races, and that could decide who controls that powerful chamber

Then there's his third and final caveat: that nothing has happened yet. All we've seen is a draft court opinion, leaked to Politico.

Sarah Elder of Baltimore is shown protesting outside the U.S. Supreme Court last week over the draft ruling on abortion. She believes the decision will affect the midterm elections. (CBC)

Crowds of protesters came to the Supreme Court last week to express anger over the leaked draft decision. They include Sarah Elder from Baltimore, who called the report devastating and a sign of backsliding toward oppression.

She said she believes it will influence the midterms. "Hopefully it will inspire a lot of people that were on the fence to come out and vote for our cause," she said.

But the actual court decision is only due by July, and the reality of state crackdowns on abortion would only be seen afterward. And that's why Frankovic is withholding judgment on the political fallout.

"We really need to wait until the decision comes," she said. "This is not the last word on it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

With files from Katie Simpson

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