President Donald Trump last Friday became the first sitting president to speak at the annual March for Life rally in Washington, and in so doing made a strong case before this staunchly anti-abortion group for his avowedly "pro-life" stance and actions as president. Critics have raised questions about the shift from his prior embrace of the "pro-choice" label, but many supporters say they are more interested in his current actions than what he may have done and said in the past.
There is little doubt that Trump's top priority in today's reelection environment is politics, and clearly political benefits were a significant goal of his appearance. The precise immediate and long-term effects of his speech are difficult if not impossible to pinpoint. But several key points are evident from a review of existing attitudes on abortion in the U.S. today, particularly among those Trump was attempting to reach with his speech.
Americans' Abortion Attitudes Are Complex and Mixed
As my colleague Lydia Saad summarized in her most recent overview of Gallup's trends on abortion: "Little has changed over the past year, or even over the past 10 years, in Americans' basic outlook on abortion. Americans hold a nuanced view about the issue, with most believing abortion should be legal, but with some restrictions." Lydia pointed out in the same review that Americans are roughly split when asked to label themselves as either pro-choice or pro-life.
As might be expected given that most Americans do not want abortion totally banned, a majority say they do not favor overturning Roe v. Wade.
But it's doubtful Trump intended to address the entire adult population with his appearance at the March for Life event. I assume he and his campaign team were instead focused on his now-famous "base" -- the group of voters he addresses at his massive campaign rallies around the country and the group whose high turnout will be key to his reelection chances.
One way to approximate Trump's base is to look at the percentage of Americans who approve of the job he is doing as president -- 42% in the 2019 poll in which we asked our standard abortion trend questions.
Republicans are significantly more opposed to legalized abortion than are Democrats, so it's to be expected that Trump approvers, who are overwhelmingly Republican, would be more opposed to abortion than Trump disapprovers. That is in fact the case. But even among those who approve of the job Trump is doing as president, attitudes are far from monolithic when it comes to abortion.
About a fourth of those who approve of the job Trump is doing want abortion to be totally illegal; the majority (about six in 10) want restrictions but not a total ban. Trump supporters skew more pro-life in their personal self-descriptions than do Trump opponents, but one in four supporters call themselves pro-choice. And Gallup data show that Trump supporters are split 46% to 44% in terms of wanting Roe overturned.
Thus, any impact of Trump's public position on abortion in maximizing voter turnout will evidently be among a subgroup of his base, not the entire group.
Little Evidence Abortion Is Highly Important to Trump Supporters
Abortion is clearly not the top political priority issue among Trump's base, taken as a whole. His supporters (defined as those who approve of the job he is doing as president) are about equally as likely as Trump opponents to say they would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion -- with the plurality of both groups saying they will take it into account as one of many issues. Twenty-eight percent of Trump approvers say that abortion will not factor into their voting choice, with 23% of Trump disapprovers saying the same.
Trump approvers are also no more likely to say that abortion is an extremely important priority for Congress and the president than are those who disapprove of Trump. And in Gallup's January update, just 2% of Trump approvers spontaneously mention abortion as the most important problem facing the nation.
Lydia Saad's review of national attitudes on abortion last year concluded that "most Americans say that abortion is not critical to their vote." It appears that this same conclusion applies to both those who support and those who oppose President Trump. Clearly, the evident emotion among those in attendance at the March for Life rally shows there are some for whom the issue is critical when they enter the voting booth, but this is not a universally held sentiment.
Evangelicals Somewhat More Supportive of Abortion Restrictions
A number of high-profile evangelical leaders (including Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham) were in attendance at the March for Life rally in Washington, underscoring the close connection in recent years between evangelicals and the abortion issue.
Despite this very public connection at the leadership level, it's challenging to tease out the precise nature of the importance of abortion to rank-and-file evangelicals in the U.S. today. That's in part because there is no universally agreed-upon definition of who is and is not an "evangelical." Efforts to define the group range the gamut from self-identification as born again or evangelical to rigorous sets of behavioral and attitudinal questions that have to be answered in the affirmative to qualify.
In my research, I often look at a useful approximation -- white Protestants who are highly religious as measured by their church attendance. Most in this group tend to approve of the job Trump is doing as president, making them keenly important to the Trump campaign's efforts to maintain and increase voter turnout in November.
Highly religious white Protestants constitute about 15% of the adult population, and by aggregating data from 2016 through 2019, we get a reasonable estimate that about four in 10 among this group say that abortion should be totally illegal. This is higher than among Trump supporters or Republicans (or the general population) yet still leaves more than half of the evangelical group who favor legalized abortion, at least in certain circumstances.
Additionally, based on an aggregate of four surveys conducted since 2014, we find that just a third of highly religious white Protestants say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion, while most the rest say that abortion is something they will take into account among other issues.
In short, evangelicals are by no means monolithically opposed to all abortions and most do not appear to be single-issue voters. Again, Trump may reach a certain segment of this highly religious group with his very public stances (and actions) on abortion, but there are many for whom it doesn't appear to be a hot-button issue.
Trump's Abortion Position and Young People, Women and Blacks
How might Trump's abortion position affect those in other groups who are likely on his campaign team's radar? This includes in particular young people, who are the least likely of any age group to support Trump based on exit polls from 2016 and current research. Those under 30 have mixed attitudes on abortion like everyone else, but skew more toward a "legal in all circumstances" position than do those who are older. Thus, Trump's pro-life pronouncements have the potential to reach a relatively small segment of young voters.
Women, who are less likely than men to support Trump, are modestly more likely to favor an "illegal in all circumstances" position than are men -- suggesting that Trump may be able to reach a segment of female voters who have firmly held anti-abortion sentiments. At the same time, of course, he risks further alienating women who are pro-choice and for whom abortion is a key issue.
Trump has talked about attempting to reach out to black voters, a group that traditionally votes overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate in presidential elections. Would abortion be a wedge issue that might help him in this regard? Blacks are more religious than the average American and religiosity is correlated with opposition to abortion, suggesting that it might possibly provide an effective way to approach the black community. But an analysis of Gallup data from 2016 to 2019 shows that black Americans, despite their religiosity, are no more likely to be in favor of restricting abortion than others (and in fact are slightly more likely to favor a "legal in all circumstances" position). Trump's staunch pro-life position, in short, may reach a segment of black voters but wouldn't appear to be a secret weapon to help him reach large numbers of this reliably Democratic voting bloc.
Evangelical leader Ralph Reed recently said, "These voters who are pro-life love Donald Trump and they will crawl across broken glass to get him reelected," lauding Trump for having "masterfully capitalized on his pro-life position in a way I think no one could have envisioned four years ago." Clearly, the data show that Trump's positioning on abortion may indeed help him solidify turnout among the ardently pro-life segment of his base. But that segment is by no means the totality of his supporters, and there are enough of those who approve of the job he is doing who have a pro-choice position to suggest that his stance could possibly cause them to be less enthusiastic about voting. Similarly, his public pro-life positioning and executive actions may solidify opposition among many pro-choice Americans who are already his opponents, possibly increasing their energy and motivation to vote for the Democratic candidate.