As Trump advances pro-life agenda, poll finds voters are not motivated by abortion attacks
President Donald Trump speaks to participants of the annual March for Life event, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

New research on how Americans view abortion reveals that Republican voters, including those who backed President Donald Trump, have a far less uniform view of abortion than messaging by the Trump administration and Republicans suggests.

At Friday’s March for Life, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) asked tens of thousands of gathered anti-abortion marchers to “thank God for giving us a pro-life president.” Trump also addressed the march, by video, saying he is committed to “protecting the sanctity of life and the family as the foundation of our society.”

Republican senators pushed for a vote Friday on a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks, after the House passed that legislation in October 2017. And with anti-abortion measures stymied in the Senate, Trump has used executive action to roll back Obama-era protections of abortion providers and groups like Planned Parenthood.

But the new research from polling firm PerryUndem shows that Trump voters are split nearly 50/50 on key questions about supporting or opposing abortion, and that a clear minority would be more likely to oppose a candidate if they are pro-choice.

According to the polling, only 51% of Trump voters identify themselves as “pro-life” and a minority want to see the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that said women have a right to an abortion filed 45 years ago this week. PerryUndem surveyed a statistically significant group of 1,029 voters in December 2017 to dig deeper into how Americans view abortion. The survey included slightly more Hillary Clinton than Trump supporters, and asked people to self-identify as Republicans or Democrats. While polls often simply ask whether abortion should be legal or illegal in all or most cases, Tresa Undem, a partner at PerryUndem, said she wanted to explore deeper beliefs about abortion.

Among his supporters, the survey found a stark divide in how Trump and Republicans should approach abortion. Only a slight majority of Trump voters want Congress to restrict a woman’s access to abortion; 45% want to see that access protected.

“Are voters really divided on this? When I look in the data, the answer is no,” Undem said. “The division really comes among self-identified Republicans. You would think they would be unified. But there’s a split there.”

The firm found a majority of self-identified Republicans, including Trump voters, said they would either be more likely to vote for a candidate who is pro-choice, or the issue would have no impact on their vote. Only 36% of Republicans said they would be more likely to vote against a candidate if they are pro-choice.

Furthermore, among Trump voters specifically, nearly 70% said abortion should not be “so political or politicized.” And nearly 60% said women should be able to make abortion decisions without government interference.

Broadly, Republican voters remain anti-abortion, while a majority of the country supports women’s access to abortion. A Pew Research survey in mid-2017 found by a nearly two-to-one margin Republicans believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. And 57% of all Americans said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Undem argued that her firm’s research shows abortion is less of a motivating factor for conservative voters than it used to be. By simply asking voters whether they oppose or support abortion, most surveys fail to understand the deeper attitudes voters have toward abortion, Undem said.

For example, Undem cited a 2016 Harvard study that asked two questions about abortions later in pregnancy. In that study, 61% of adults said a woman should not be able to obtain a legal abortion after 24 weeks. When asked if a woman with Zika should be allowed to get an abortion after 24 weeks, the findings nearly reversed: 59% supported legal abortion after six months.

When a specific example of why an abortion is needed is introduced, the opinion of adults changes dramatically — suggesting people are less wed to their pro-life views than generally accepted, Undem said. If anything, she said, her recent research shows a majority of Trump voters and Republicans will not be motivated against candidates by attacks on their pro-life records.

“There’s so much contrary to conventional wisdom in this survey,” Undem said. “That question that’s typically used is misleading, possibly — it’s incomplete for sure. When you talk to real people, they don’t talk about their attitudes as, ‘abortion should be legal or illegal in most cases.’ They talk about it as a choice, a right and everything else.”

Abortion was hardly a campaign issue in the 2016 election. Even in conservative Alabama, polling showed that in December’s vote, Democrat Doug Jones pro-choice stance was not a key reason voters opposed him. Jones beat Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, even though a majority of Alabama’s voters believe abortion should be illegal. Moore, who is anti-abortion, faced numerous allegations of sexually harassing female minors.

Heading into an election year projected to be challenging for Republicans, GOP politicians at the state level are not following the lead of their leaders in Washington. In Virginia, no bills to restrict abortion access have been introduced after more than a dozen Republicans lost their seats in the House of Delegates last November.