Public opinion is a slippery concept
I frequently argue that there’s no such thing as public opinion. There is such a thing as public opinion polls. And there is such a thing as election results. But “public opinion” is an ambiguous concept. What does it really mean?
A few weeks ago, I did a post pointing out that when abortion bans were put on the ballot in North and South Dakota; they were defeated by a very substantial margin. And yet we are constantly being told that conservatives oppose abortion, despite those being two of America’s most conservative states.
Another test of my theory occurred yesterday in Kansas. This is how the abortion referendum was expected to come out:
The vote will be an early bellwether for how Americans are thinking about abortion in the lead-up to the midterms. According to the first publicly released poll of the campaign, conducted by co/efficient and shared exclusively with FiveThirtyEight, 47 percent of likely primary voters say they plan to vote for the amendment [allowing the legislature to regulate abortion], while 43 percent say they plan to vote against it.
And here’s how the referendum actually turned out:
Tuesday marked the first vote on abortion in a post-Roe landscape. Kansans decided by a double-digit margin that the state constitution does, in fact, protect the right to abortion. With 99 percent of the expected vote reporting, 59 percent of voters voted “no,” on the amendment, or to clarify that the constitution does protect the right to abortion, while 41 percent voted “yes,” or to clarify that the constitution doesn’t protect the right to abortion. It’s notable that the yeses won by 18 points in a state that former President Donald Trump won by roughly 15 points in 2020.
And this despite the weird timing of the vote—during a primary. The pro-life side hoped that would reduce the turnout (their only hope).
One thing is now pretty clear. If left to voters, abortion would be at least partially legal in almost every single state in America (except perhaps a handful in the Deep South). I’m not predicting that this will happen, as I don’t expect the decision to be left to the voters. For instance, in Wisconsin (a much more liberal state than Kansas) voters are not allowed to vote in referenda. Hence abortion is illegal in Wisconsin. (Texas is also more liberal than Kansas.)
There are millions, perhaps tens of millions of Americans that seem to believe both of these statements are true:
1. Abortion is wrong
2. The abortion question should be left to the woman and her doctor
After all, people like life. But they also like choice. You’d be surprised at how many Americans are both pro-life and pro-choice:
Doesn’t make sense? Welcome to the world of “there’s no such thing as public opinion”.
The Kansas pro-choice side won the battle with TV ads that framed the debate as being about the freedom of women to make decisions with their doctor, not whether abortion is wrong. With different framing, the pro-life side might do better.