Originally published in Vox on May 8, 2023.
Democrats know that Republican attacks on abortion rights will be central to their efforts to reelect Joe Biden and regain full control of Congress in 2024.
And for good reason — Democrats won competitive midterm races last fall while running on protecting reproductive freedom. Last month, in another high-stakes election in Wisconsin, the judicial candidate who staunchly supported abortion rights beat her anti-abortion opponent by 11 points.
Polls conducted over the last few months indicate that abortion remains top of mind for voters, who seem to have grown even more supportive of abortion rights than they were before the Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturned the constitutional right to an abortion last June.
“I don’t think Democrats have fully processed that this country is now 10 to 15 percent more pro-choice than it was before Dobbs in state after state and national data,” pollster Celinda Lake said recently.
But there is one worrying sign for Democrats in the polling data. Over the past two weeks, for example, two new national polls and data from three focus groups conducted in swing states (Ohio, North Carolina, and Michigan) indicated that significant numbers of independent voters remain confused and skeptical about where Republicans and Democrats stand on protecting abortion rights. The upside for Democrats is they may have substantial room to grow with these voters.
One survey, conducted in mid-April by Marist Poll in partnership with NPR and PBS NewsHour, found 38 percent of independent voters think neither Democrats nor Republicans handle the abortion issue well, compared to just 10 percent of Democratic voters and 21 percent of Republican voters who felt the same. And when the progressive polling group Navigator asked voters in April what they thought came closest to the Democratic Party’s position on abortion, 34 percent of independents said they didn’t know enough to say, compared to just 9 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of Republicans.
These gaps are significant, as most US adults self-identify as independent voters — 41 percent, according to Gallup, compared to 28 percent of adults who ID as Republican and 28 percent as Democrat. “Since 2009, independent identification has grown and reached levels not seen before,” Gallup reported this year.
The surveys come as some abortion rights activists continue to raise frustrations with the president for what they see as his lackluster support for keeping abortion legal. While the Biden administration has done much to defend abortion rights since the Supreme Court issued its ruling last summer, the president himself has struggled to talk about abortion, relying largely on surrogates and euphemisms like “protect women’s health care” and “a woman’s right to choose.” In Biden’s recently released reelection launch video, he did not say “abortion” himself — though a woman was featured holding an “abortion is healthcare” protest sign. In February, Biden used the word “abortion” explicitly for the first time in a State of the Union address, though many activists were still upset he devoted just four sentences to the topic, and almost an hour into his speech. “It was, to be blunt, offensive,” feminist writer Jessica Valenti said after.
The Biden administration did not return a request for comment.
Bryan Bennett, a pollster with Navigator, said independents broadly report pro-choice attitudes, so the two new surveys suggest Biden and Democrats “have a real opportunity to talk more and crystallize” where they stand on abortion.
Bennett noted that among independent women, the gaps were even higher, with 43 percent in their latest survey saying they weren’t sure what Democrats’ position on abortion was. “Focusing on that, and trying to reach that 34 percent of independents who don’t have a position, represents a real chance to drive that [pro-abortion rights] advantage,” he said.
What we know about independent voters and abortion rights
A majority of independent voters back abortion rights, though public opinion research indicates there may be some notable differences between their views and those of self-identified Democrats. For example, while a post-Dobbs Navigator survey found 84 percent of Democrats identified as “pro-choice,” the pollsters found just 54 percent of independents did. Thirty percent of independents in the same survey identified as “pro-life,” compared to 11 percent of Democrats.
Heading into the 2022 midterms, pollsters found abortion rights to be a significantly motivating issue for independent voters, though again less motivating than for Democrats. A quarter of independents told Navigator the Dobbs decision made them “much more motivated” to vote in November, compared to 56 percent of Democrats. And 41 percent of independents told KFF the decision made them “more motivated” to vote, compared to 64 percent of Democrats. A Wall Street Journal poll found 9 percent of independents ranked the Supreme Court ruling as the top issue among five choices motivating them to vote, compared with 77 percent of Democrats.
In days immediately following the midterms, NARAL Pro-Choice America led exit surveys of voters in battleground states and found that while Democrats ranked abortion a top priority for Congress and the White House, independents did not.
Still, independents definitely reported broad pro-choice attitudes in NARAL’s exit survey, with 54 percent saying they’d be less likely to support Republicans if they tried to pass more abortion bans, and 74 percent of independents said women and their doctors should make decisions about abortion, not politicians.
When asked about the Marist/NPR survey finding high levels of distrust among independents for both Democrats and Republicans, Angela Vasquez-Giroux, NARAL’s vice president of research, noted that many voters support abortion access because they distrust politicians generally. “Voters don’t want politicians involved in their personal freedoms and personal medical decisions,” she told Vox.
New focus groups suggest some voters are very confused
In late April, Navigator hosted three focus groups with women voters to learn more about how abortion issues continue to motivate Americans politically. The participants in Ohio and North Carolina were suburban women who identified as either weak Democrats, independents, or weak Republicans; the participants in Michigan were women of color who identified as either strong Democrats, weak Democrats, or independents.
Each group had between seven and nine participants, and all had previously stated they either support the right to abortion or do not believe the government should prevent access to abortion even if they are personally against it. While these are tiny samples, researchers say the qualitative data from a focus group helps clarify voter beliefs and signals questions to more rigorously study in the future.
Vox reviewed video footage and transcripts from the three focus groups and found in each some women who support abortion rights had significant trouble identifying Democrats’ and Republicans’ stances on abortion.
“I think Democrats are pro-life and Republicans are against it,” said one participant in Ohio, when asked what Democrats and Republicans believe on abortion.
In Michigan, a woman was asked how the two parties differ on abortion and how she would describe each party’s position.
“I’m not sure,” the woman answered. “I really haven’t basically heard anything about which party is leaning toward it and which one isn’t.” When the focus group moderator pressed her to guess, she answered: “If I had to guess, I would say Democrat would probably be against it and Republican probably would be for it.”
In North Carolina, a participant said she wasn’t sure where the parties stand on abortion and had been surprised Roe v. Wade was overturned under a Democrat.
“Okay, but did Joe Biden have a say in whether or not it was overturned?” the focus group moderator asked.
“No, but he helped get the Supreme judges where they are.” The moderator then informed the woman that the most recent judges came in under Donald Trump.
Confusion among independents has been reflected in some other polling data. For example, in a survey conducted in the two weeks after Dobbs, 23 percent of independents said they don’t know if abortion rights were at risk in their state, compared to just 5 percent of Democrats who said the same. Likewise, while a majority of independents said in the same survey they would support a nationwide law that protects the right of a woman to have an abortion, 18 percent of independents said they weren’t sure either way, suggesting there might be more need to clarify for voters what that means.
One Democratic pollster, speaking on background, said the data about independents was great to have and provides “actionable information” for campaigns ahead of 2024.
Other leaders have been more hesitant to suggest Democrats could benefit from new tactics to target pro-choice independents — saying the recent election results in Democrats’ favor speak for themselves.
“Time and time again, whether it was the 2022 midterms, ballot initiatives, or special elections in Virginia and Wisconsin, voters continue to prove that they will support the candidate who will protect their reproductive freedom,” said Jenny Lawson, the vice president of organizing and electoral campaigns at Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “The data is clear and we have the receipts: Anti-abortion politicians are on the losing side of the issue.”
Vasquez-Giroux of NARAL also defended Biden’s rhetoric. “I think the president is doing a pretty good job of being clear about where he stands, and [regarding] the reelection video — taking one example out is not fully representative,” she said. “And you do have [Vice President] Kamala Harris out on the road talking about abortion. It should be clear where the administration stands.”