The GOP's Polling Problem
Republicans are being duped by the anti-abortion movement
Republicans are in denial over abortion. Despite poll after poll showing record support for abortion rights—and even after losing every election where abortion is on the ballot—conservative legislators continue to insist that Americans support bans.
Obviously, some of them are bullshitting. The Republicans working hard to keep abortion off state ballots, for example, know precisely how unpopular their laws are. But there are still a shocking number of legislators who believe Americans really do want some kind of abortion restriction.
That delusion is going to help us keep winning. And we have the anti-abortion movement to thank.
Because it’s not just voters’ anger over abortion bans that has the GOP losing ballot initiatives and state Supreme Court races. Americans’ post-Roe rage is certainly a huge part of it, as is the incredible work of pro-choice activists. But there’s something else going on, too: The anti-abortion movement is giving Republicans bad polls.
Groups like Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America keep feeding the GOP massaged and skewed numbers—a desperate attempt to make the party believe that abortion isn’t a losing issue. As a result, Republican candidates and campaigns have been ill-equipped for the moment, framing their messaging around bad data and getting soundly defeated.
What happened in Virginia last November—where the anti-abortion movement spent months and millions just to lose spectacularly—is a perfect example.
In early 2023, anti-choice organizations persuaded Virginia Republicans to go all in on abortion. Sure, the GOP had lost the midterms over abortion rights, but SBA Pro-Life America president Marjorie Dannenfelser insisted it was because candidates ran away from the issue—something she called “the ostrich strategy.”
The group claimed their polling showed over 60% of Virginia voters would support a 15-week ban as a ‘reasonable middle ground’ on abortion—it was just the word ‘ban’ holding them back.
The Virginia GOP believed them: Gov. Glenn Youngkin told the media that his policy wasn’t a ban. “It’s actually a limit,” he said. Republican candidates attacked Democrats as supporting abortion ‘up until birth’, and put out ads claiming that their 15-week ban is ‘not a ban’. They didn’t avoid abortion—they leaned into it.
The offensive strategy thrilled anti-abortion groups, who lauded Virginia Republicans as a model for the rest of the country. Dannenfelser even said Virginia would be “the clearest bellwether going into 2024.”
Anti-abortion groups saw the state as a test case for future campaigning and messaging tactics—specifically, the bet that Americans would support a ban if it was framed as a ‘consensus’ or ‘limit’. More broadly, conservatives were hoping that a win in Virginia would convince Democrats to stop talking about abortion so damn much.
Republicans were feeling confident as November approached, but the rest of us saw their defeat coming a mile away.
All the credible polling showed that Virginia voters were pro-choice and didn’t support Youngkin’s abortion ban. One poll reported that 72% of voters didn’t want any further abortion restrictions, with 54% opposing the governor’s ban, specifically. Another poll from Washington Post/Schar School showed similar numbers—with 49% of voters wanting the law to stay the same, and 24% wanting abortion restrictions loosened.
A few weeks before the election, Democratic state Sen. Scott Surovell told the Richmond Times Dispatch, “Every poll I’ve seen says Virginians don’t think the law should be changed.” He said Republicans’ abortion ads were going to “blow up in their faces.”
He was right: On election day, the anti-abortion movement’s plan failed monumentally and Democrats gained control of the Virginia legislature.
Again, a big part of that loss was driven by voters’ anger: Americans across the country are horrified by all the post-Roe horror stories. It was also very clear—despite Virginia Republicans’ best efforts promising otherwise—that the state GOP was never going to stop at 15 weeks.
Youngkin had said that he would “happily and gleefully” sign “any bill that comes to my desk…in order to protect life.” And Dannenfelser admitted that 15-week bans were just starting points for total bans: “What we want is to be as ambitious for life in every legislature that there is…asking for a heartbeat bill or a life at conception.”
But voters didn’t have to be clued in to the long-term strategy to vote against Republicans—the 15-week ban itself was enough to turn them off. An August New York Times-Sienna College poll, for example, found that 15-week bans are just as unpopular as 6-week bans. Another study reported that Americans reject the notion of 15-week bans as ‘reasonable compromises’ by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
So where in the world did SBA Pro-Life America come up with the idea that most Americans would support a 15-week ban? Why was their polling so different than everyone else’s? The short answer is that they lied.
The group knows that Americans overwhelmingly support abortion rights, so they didn’t ask respondents if they supported a 15-week ban, or if they believed in ‘limits’ or ‘restrictions’ on abortion. Instead, they asked this:
“Do you support/oppose abortion up to 15 weeks with exceptions for rape/incest/or if the mother’s life is at risk?”
No one reading this question would think this was about a ban—it sounds as if they’re asking whether or not you support abortion. So of course 61% of voters “supported” the statement; they thought they were giving a pro-choice answer! Similarly, the 31% who “opposed” weren’t, as anti-abortion activists would have us believe, pro-choicers opposing a 15-week ban. That 31% was anti-choice voters opposing “abortion up to 15 weeks.”
It explains why SBA Pro-Life America’s numbers so neatly mirror credible polls showing 60-70% of Americans support abortion rights. They found a way to invert the answers.
This isn’t something that just happened in Virginia: The anti-abortion movement is doing this everywhere. For example, SBA Pro-Life America likes to say that over 70% of Americans want a 15-week national abortion ban—a claim with no basis in reality.
That’s why a Washington Post fact-checker wouldn’t let Marjorie Dannenfelser and Kellyanne Conway make that assertion in an August op-ed. Instead, the duo wrote that “polls show that 56 percent of voters support a national abortion limit of 15 weeks…” Even 56% is dubious, though, because once against the group relied on a poll that asked respondents leading questions:
“Some people say that abortion should be limited after a baby can feel pain at 15 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for the life of the mother, rape and incest…Other people say that abortion should be legal for any reason, without any limitations, up until the moment of birth. Which viewpoint comes close to your own?”
They deliberately skewed voters’ answers by giving them two choices using inflammatory language. Methodology like that doesn’t come close to proving that Americans support a national abortion ban, yet that’s what Republicans have been insisting for months. (With national mainstream media outlets following suit.)
It’s not just SBA Pro-Life America peddling in false statistics. Last year, Students for Life released a deceptive poll they said proved young people were against abortion. The truth? Young voters are the most pro-choice demographic in the country.
The radical anti-abortion group (which also wants to ban birth control) used progressive issues like domestic violence and environmental protection to frame their questions. They asked young voters, for example, if they support in-person appointments for abortion medication to prevent domestic abusers from drugging women without their knowledge. The poll also asked respondents if they want to protect the country’s “water safety.” (Students for Life has made the absurd and debunked claim that abortion medication is spreading through waste water.)
I keep wondering when Republicans will catch on. I know some of them are just playing the game, repeating nonsense polls and talking points they know are false to build a public sense of momentum. But it’s clear that either by delusion or denial, much of the GOP is holding tight to the lies the anti-abortion movement tells them.
No wonder the GOP keeps losing. They’ve been tricked into believing that Americans are on their side—duped by a movement willing to sacrifice short-term election victories for their long-term agenda.
After all, anti-abortion groups can’t afford to admit that their mission is unpopular, especially right now. Owning up to the reality of how Americans feel about abortion rights in an election year would be catastrophic: It would mean watching Republicans retreat from the extreme policies they worked to implement for decades.
These organizations and activists finally overturned Roe—they’re not about to back off now, no matter how voters feel about abortion. And if they have to trick a few Republican politicians along the way, so be it.
Abortion, Every Day isn’t just tracking the news—but anti-abortion strategy. But the newsletter can’t do it without you. Help me keep publishing pieces like this one by signing up for a paid subscription: