I’ll be getting to exactly where the GOP candidates stand in a moment. Because public opinion on abortion has been relatively stable for decades now, because the two parties take clear and opposing positions on the issue, and because certain kinds of vague poll questions show a near-even split among Americans, reporters often assume that the public is evenly divided on the issue and therefore it will always be a wash when election time comes around. But that’s not actually true.
To understand why, you have to separate what Americans say when asked these questions in different ways, what they say when they’re asked specific questions as opposed to general questions, and where each of the Republicans actually stand.
The poll questions that produce roughly equal divisions come in two forms. The first asks whether respondents generally consider themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” While at times one or the other has moved into the majority, those two options have stayed close in popularity for the last 15 years. The second form asks whether abortions should always be legal, always be illegal, legal under most circumstances, or legal under only some circumstances. In that case, you tend to get slightly over 50 percent saying always or mostly legal, and around 40-45 percent saying always or mostly illegal (the latest Pew data show a 55-40 division on this question; see here for trends on both questions).
Politicians don’t have the luxury of just saying “I’m pro-life” or “I think abortion should be legal in most circumstances.” They have to tell us exactly what they’d do. And what the Republican candidates would do is not just unpopular, but unpopular even within their own party.
I’m going to focus on two questions for the moment: whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and whether, if abortion is banned, there ought to be exceptions for victims of rape and incest.
The Roe v. Wade question is critical, because it is all but guaranteed that should a Republican become president, he will appoint only Supreme Court justices who can be counted on to vote to overturn Roe, which would allow states to ban abortion completely. Right now there are four Supreme Court justices ready to overturn the decision; if the right justice (or two) retires, it would be gone.
But that’s not what the public wants. Polls consistently show that between 55 and 65 percent of Americans say that Roe should not be overturned, while only around 30 percent say it should. And even within the Republican Party opinion is divided almost evenly. Yet with the exception of George Pataki, every single Republican candidate for president is in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade (if we assume that Donald Trump’s relatively recent conversion to the pro-life cause includes opposition to Roe; he doesn’t seem to have said specifically, but when asked, he insists that he’s pro-life and hates abortion).
On the question of exceptions to abortion bans in cases of rape or incest, I should note that opposing such exceptions is philosophically consistent. If you believe that abortion is murder, then you ought to believe it’s always murder, however the woman got pregnant. You could also argue that rape and incest exceptions reinforce the idea that abortion access ought to be granted through some kind of puritanical virtue test — a woman who was raped didn’t willfully have sex, so therefore she isn’t a dirty sinner and she can get an abortion.
Nevertheless, the fact is that most Americans believe women who are raped or girls who are the victims of incest should be able to access abortion. And not just a majority, but a huge majority. Polls that have asked this question find between 75 and 85 percent favoring legal abortions in case of rape and incest (see here for some of them).
So here’s where the GOP candidates stand on that question:
- Donald Trump: Supports exceptions for rape and incest.
- Ben Carson: Opposes exceptions for rape and incest.
- Jeb Bush: Supports exceptions for rape and incest.
- Marco Rubio: Opposes exceptions for rape and incest.
- Ted Cruz: Opposes exceptions for rape and incest.
- John Kasich: Supports he favors exceptions for rape and incest.
- Carly Fiorina: Supports exceptions for rape and incest.
- Rand Paul: Proposed a constitutional amendment applying the 14th Amendment at the moment of conception, which would outlaw all abortions, including those resulting from rape and incest.
- Chris Christie: Supports exceptions for rape and incest.
- Lindsey Graham: Supports exceptions for rape and incest.
- Bobby Jindal: Opposes exceptions for rape and incest.
- Rick Santorum: Opposes exceptions for rape and incest.
- Mike Huckabee: Opposes exceptions for rape and incest; even defended the government of Paraguay for denying an abortion to an 11-year-old girl who had been raped by her stepfather.
- Jim Gilmore: Unclear.
- George Pataki: Supports keeping Roe v. Wade; would presumably support rape and incest exceptions, though I was unable to find any references to him addressing them specifically.
For good measure, the departed Scott Walker also opposed exceptions for rape and incest. That leaves us with this: 14 of the 15 remaining Republican candidates want to overturn Roe v. Wade, and 7 out of the 15 would ban abortion with no exceptions for rape and incest.
As I said, you can argue that opposing those exceptions is a philosophically consistent position. But you can’t argue that it isn’t radical, when a majority of both Democrats and Republicans disagree, and the belief is shared by as little as 15 percent of the American public.
We’ve talked a lot about how the Republican candidates are being pulled to the right by their base on the issue of immigration, and how that could damage the eventual nominee’s prospects in the general election. But on abortion, the base isn’t pulling the candidates; they’re out on the rightward extreme already, even more so than their constituents.