The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP has a Trump problem on abortion

More than 300 abortion opponents rally at the California Capitol during the California March for Life rally in Sacramento on June 22. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
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The first reports were vague, as might be expected given the news: A child had gotten pregnant as a result of rape. Her doctor, worried about the legality of terminating the pregnancy in Ohio, given laws that went into effect with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, reached out to a doctor in nearby Indiana for assistance.

It was the sort of scenario that Americans broadly see as warranting the termination of a pregnancy, an uncommon but not nonexistent horror that shouldn’t result in a 10-year-old (as was the case here) having to bring a rapist’s child to term.

When the story emerged, though, the most visible response on the right was neither sympathy nor recognition that this was the sort of carve-out common to abortion discussions. Instead, it was to cast doubt on the story itself. To deploy rhetorical mechanisms perfected over seven years of downplaying bad political news for Donald Trump to indicate that news reports were false — lies, even — and the child invented. Which, of course, she wasn’t.

To a large extent, this was simply because the case was such an obvious example of an occurrence where Americans agree with abortion. It was the sort of exception that makes a defense of complete prohibitions on abortion difficult to sell. The response was also certainly influenced by months of conservative assurances that nothing would change in the wake of Roe’s repeal. That was a line heard more than once on Fox News; it was certainly not true that nothing had changed for this child who had been sexually assaulted.

But there’s probably a broader issue at play here, one that should also be familiar from the early days of the Trump era. While most Americans have nuanced views of abortion, many of those in the Republican base don’t. Republican primary voters, if not donors, hold a harder line on abortion than do most Americans, and it’s those vocal, active Republicans who probably have the most success in driving the actions of Republican leaders. Just as the vocal, hard-right base of support for Trump shaped and continues to shape Republican politics.

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In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last month, the decision that reversed Roe, Pew Research Center asked Americans how they felt about the decision. In general, Democrats opposed it and Republicans supported it.

But Pew dug a level deeper, finding that views of Dobbs were much stronger among the most partisan flanks of each party. More than 6 in 10 Republicans who self-identify as conservative, for example, were strongly supportive of the Dobbs decision, compared to only a fifth of moderate Republicans and a quarter of Americans overall.

Asked when abortion should be legal, conservative Republicans were also far more likely to say it should always or usually be illegal than were moderate Republicans.

This is not a small group. Republicans are more likely to identify as conservative than Democrats are to identify as liberal.

Data from the 2020 American National Election Study, conducted around that year’s election, indicates that Republicans who identify as “extremely conservative” made up a larger percentage of the primary electorate — nearly half — than those identifying as “conservative” or something further left. Republicans who identify as “extremely conservative” were much more likely to have absolutist positions on abortion — and extremely conservative Republicans who voted in the primary were more likely to say abortion should be banned in every circumstance than were extremely conservative Republicans who didn’t vote.

This comports with research (brought to my attention by Michigan State political scientist Matt Grossmann) conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Rachel Porter. In 2021, Porter published a paper titled “Estimating the Ideology of Congressional Primary Electorates,” in which she measured the ideological extremity of primary voters in both parties. What she found was that, in 2012, 2014 and 2016, Republican primary voters were more extreme than Democratic ones.

You can see that comparison more clearly in this animation comparing the two graphs above.

More importantly, Porter writes, “ideological challengers are more likely to emerge in districts with more extreme primary electorates” — meaning that more polarized electorates vote for more polarized candidates. That’s particularly true, she adds, in places where the general election is not contested.

In other words, Republicans running in safe Republican seats are more likely to have more ideologically extreme primary electorates than Democrats, and that the victors in those races are more likely to themselves reflect ideological extremes. If you want to win votes from those voters, toeing a more moderate line may not be an effective approach.

Interesting research from University of California researcher David Broockman and Stanford University’s Neil Malhotra looked at another form of influence: campaign contributions. They found that while Republican donors are consistently more conservative than the voter pool overall, that wasn’t as true on social issues, including abortion.

In fact, donors are slightly more liberal on abortion than are Republicans overall.

Again, this is a familiar pattern. It’s not the elites who are driving a hard-line position on abortion, just as it wasn’t the elites who were driving for Trump’s nomination in 2015 and 2016. Instead, it’s a vocal, activist base that drove an unexpected victory.

For Republicans nationally, ongoing pressure from those activists creates political problems as surely as does Trump’s continued agitation. With an eye on November, the party would like to assure voters, particularly moderate women, that it will be accommodating and supportive of women who will now have to carry babies to term. But activists and legislators in safe red districts call for national legislation banning abortion or argue that the abused Ohio 10-year-old might eventually “understand the reason and ultimately the benefit of having the child.”

Not a strong campaign message for a national electorate in which only 1 in 10 people think abortion should always be illegal. But a good one for Republican primary voters in safe red districts.