The people shifting their opinions the most on abortion may surprise you
by Jael Strell, Thomas Hershewe, Zoe Kava and Brian Schaffner
On August 8th, Ohio voters delivered a decisive rejection of Issue 1, aimed at making it more difficult for constitutional protections for abortion from being codified in the state. This is the latest electoral setback for Republicans since achieving a clear victory on their anti-abortion agenda with the Dobbs decision over a year ago. That anti-abortion agenda was driven largely by the need to appeal to conservative Christians, particularly Evangelicals, a key part of the Republican coalition who are known for their opposition to abortion. We often think of the more than 60 million American Evangelical adults as having especially hardened anti-abortion views. But our research finds that abortion positions among this group are actually very much in flux. Evangelicals have been more likely than other groups to change their views on abortion since the Dobbs decision. And among the 20 million Evangelicals who changed their position on abortion between 2020 and 2022, more often than not the shift was towards more pro-choice positions.
Abortion played an important role in the 2022 midterm elections, and remains a top issue for voters. Recent polling has indicated that attitudes on abortion overall are shifting in the wake of the decision. The Cooperative Election Study (CES) survey provides a unique opportunity to analyze the change in attitudes on abortion over time because we asked 11,000 people the exact same questions in 2020 and then again in 2022 to see which individuals changed their opinion on questions related to abortion.
As we tend to see with most issues, the vast majority of Americans held stable positions on abortion over the two-year period. An overwhelming majority of respondents in both years think that abortion should be legal to some degree. Abortion bans remain highly unpopular, with only twelve percent of the sample in 2022 believing that abortion should be illegal in all cases. This tracks with Gallup’s most recent May 2023 poll, which similarly found that only thirteen percent of respondents thought that abortion should be illegal in all cases.
But one in five Americans changed their position on abortion over the last two years. Among those whose positions changed, 52 percent moved in a more pro-choice direction while 48 percent moved towards more anti-abortion views. It would be natural to attribute the shifting views on abortion to the seismic impact of the Dobbs decision, and abortion being in the forefront of the news cycle. But peoples’ views on this issue are often in flux, even during periods untouched by major Supreme Court decisions. For example, when we look at similar data from a decade earlier, we find a strikingly similar pattern. About 20 percent of American adults changed their views on abortion between 2010 and 2012.
What is noteworthy is not that people are changing their minds on abortion, but whose minds are changing. Since 2020, 27 percent of Evangelical Christians changed their minds on this issue, a much higher rate than among those who do not identify as Evangelical. This was also the case a decade ago–but it’s occurring at even higher rates today. Evangelical Christians are not the unyielding hardliners on this issue that they sometimes appear to be.
Of the approximate 20 million Evangelicals who have changed their minds about abortion since 2020, an estimated 11 million have moved towards more pro-choice views. About half of this group moved from saying abortion should always be illegal to accepting abortion under some circumstances while the remainder shifted their views to being fully pro-choice. Women accounted for the vast majority of these pro-choice shifting Evangelicals. Only a minority of this group of Evangelicals shifted their views in the opposite direction, taking on more anti-abortion positions since 2020.
Republican politicians who are increasingly promoting more restrictive stances on abortion are playing a potentially dangerous game going into the 2024 elections. Focusing on hardline abortion stances is not only not going to win Republican elections, but may even alienate some voters in key conservative constituencies that Republicans need to win. As GOP candidates advocate for stricter abortion restrictions or even bans, they may imagine that they can at least count on the stable support of their Evangelical base. But as our data shows, the ground may be shifting underneath them even more than they realize.