People wait for a Tennessee state Senate hearing on abortion to begin Monday in Nashville. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
Opinion writer

A new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute finds a majority of Americans (54 percent) think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 25 percent think it should be illegal in most cases, and only 15 percent think it should be illegal in all cases. “Although a few states such as Alabama and Missouri have recently passed laws that — should they survive court challenges — would make abortion illegal with virtually no exceptions, there is no state in which more than one-quarter of residents say abortion should be illegal in all cases,” the polls finds. “States with the largest proportion of residents who say abortion should be illegal in all cases include: Louisiana (23%), Mississippi (22%), Arkansas (21%), Nebraska (21%), Tennessee (21%), Kentucky (20%), and North Dakota (20%). In all other states, including Alabama (16%) and Missouri (19%), fewer than one in five think abortion should be illegal in all cases.”

To make matters more interesting, the parties are not entirely homogeneous and some who still identify as Republicans are more supportive of abortion rights than conservative Democrats. (“Liberal Republicans (54%) are more supportive of abortion legality than conservative Democrats (46%). Liberal Democrats (82%) are more supportive of legality than conservative Republicans (68%) are opposed to it. Conservative independents (37%) resemble Republicans overall, but both moderate (61%) and liberal (70%) independents show strong support for abortion legality.”)

Every racial group, except Hispanics, thinks that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Hispanic are divided, with an interesting twist for anti-immigrant right-wingers:

A majority (57%) of Hispanics born in the U.S. believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases, compared to 36% who say it should be illegal in most or all cases. Among Hispanics born in Puerto Rico, 41% support abortion legality, compared to 53% who say it should be illegal in most or all cases. By contrast, only 33% of Hispanics born outside of the U.S. say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while nearly six in ten (59%) say it should be illegal in most or all cases.

[Emphasis added.]

Hmm. Maybe they’d actually have a shot at winning over immigrant Hispanics to an issue they claim to be one of their highest priorities, or does hatred of immigrants outweigh hatred of abortion?

The most misunderstood aspect of abortion politics is that this is a gender-based issue. “The gender gap is modest. Women (55%) show slightly higher support than men (52%) for legal abortion in most or all cases, unchanged from 2014. Generally speaking, gender is a less significant driver of attitudes on the legality of abortion than party affiliation and religious affiliation.” Appealing to women purely on abortion is not a politically rational tactic, and the notion that abortion is purely a woman’s issue is false.

There is also a big religious divide, as one might expect. While substantial majorities of Hispanic Protestants, white evangelical Protestants, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, a significant majority of white mainline Protestants and black Protestants say abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Catholics are evenly divided, although “a majority (52%) of white Catholics, compared to 41% of Hispanic Catholics, support the legality of abortion.” Majorities of non-Christians support legal abortion in most or all cases. It’s noteworthy, however, that even among President Trump’s core supporters — white evangelical Protestants — only 25 percent say abortion should be illegal in all cases.

As one might expect, older Americans and Americans in the South oppose abortion in greater numbers than younger Americans and those in the Northeast and the Midwest. If Republicans think antiabortion extremism is the way to win over swing states in the upper Midwest, they’re badly mistaken. “Majorities of residents in Michigan (56%), Ohio (56%), Illinois (55%), Minnesota (55%), Wisconsin (54%), and Iowa (52%) say abortion should be legal in most or all cases.”

There aren’t many people who report having changed their mind on abortion. More than three quarters say they haven’t changed their views. “These reported changes mostly align with stated positions on the legality of abortion, meaning that those who support abortion legality in most or all cases are mostly becoming more supportive, and those who oppose abortion legality in most or all cases are becoming more opposed.” Among those who have changed, roughly the same number of people have become opposed to legal abortion as who have become supportive of legal abortion.

The number of one-issue Americans is smaller than you might think, but antiabortion forces have the advantage among those voters. “About one in five (21%) Americans consider a political candidate’s view on abortion a dealbreaker and say they would only vote for a candidate who shares their opinion on abortion. Americans who oppose the legality of abortion (27%) are significantly more likely than those who support the legality of abortion (18%) to say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on the issue.” And with regard to the gender issue, in fact there are more one-issue antiabortion female voters than one-issue female voters who support legal abortion. “Women (24%) are more likely than men (18%) to say they would only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion. Women who think abortion should be legal in most or all cases (22%) are less likely than those who believe it should be illegal in most or all cases (29%) to say they would only support a candidate who shares their views on the issue.” In sum, there are a whole bunch of women opposed to abortion in most or all cases, and they vote based on that belief.

On government coverage, more than three quarters of those surveyed support government coverage (via Medicaid or other government programs) for birth control, but views on coverage for abortions break along similar lines as views on the legality of abortion.

There are a few takeaways from all of this.

First, opponents of abortion bans have badly missed the mark; indeed, they risk driving up support for legal abortion as voters see the perils of the bans. The more these measures are characterized as attempts to oppress women (what could be more oppressive than the threat of criminal prosecution for the woman or her doctor?) and control their autonomy and life choices, the more antiabortion forces have at risk. It’s no mystery why Ilyse Hogue, who heads NARAL Pro-Choice America, speaks in these terms: “This debate is about freedom — freedom for more than half of Americans to make the best decisions for themselves, their families, and their futures without political interference,” she wrote for CNN.com. “We need to talk about reproductive rights and health care in a way that acknowledges the complexities and profound implications for the freedom all Americans cherish.”

Second, women are on both sides of the abortion debate, although in the age of Trump it’s very possible that abortion bans, in conjunction with insulting language toward women from the White House and unmitigated cruelty toward asylum-seeking women and children, will accelerate the flight of women from the GOP.

Finally, abortion is not the biggest example of single-issue votes out there, but let’s remember that in an election that might revolve around turning out the base, Democrats might be able to construct a fierce coalition of voters with a variety of one-issue causes — abortion rights, gun safety, humane treatment of immigrants and the biggest of them all, health care.