The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Overturning Roe remains as unpopular as ever — despite GOP hopes

Antiabortion activists gather outside the Supreme Court before the court issued a ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade on June 24. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

It’s long been a conceit of abortion rights opponents that the strong support for Roe v. Wade in polls was oversold. Americans have opposed overturning the landmark ruling by a wide margin, but they were also pretty evenly split on when abortion should be legal, depending upon how you asked about the issue. The theory was that people didn’t really understand what overturning Roe meant — that they might’ve thought it meant banning abortion nationwide, rather than letting the states decide. Maybe the decision would cause them to reevaluate their support?

And that was actually plausible. Abortion is a complicated issue to poll, and the vast majority of Americans aren’t legal experts. It seemed possible that the reality of a country without Roe — that is, a state by state patchwork of abortion restrictions and protections might change people’s attitudes about overturning it and render a decision to do so less unpopular.

But that aggregate shift hasn’t happened.

Nearly three months later after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, that move remains as unpopular as the polls have long suggested; indeed, it appears to be one of the court’s most unpopular decisions in modern history. Despite Republicans emphasizing the idea of sending the issue “back to the states,” Americans still oppose overturning Roe by around a 2-to-1 margin. And crucially, they still strongly oppose it even when told that the court’s decision means states can now decide the issue for themselves.

Interestingly, though, that’s not because views haven’t shifted at all. Republicans have turned against Roe more than in the spring.

A Fox News poll in May released the day Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson leaked showed just 38 percent of Republicans wanted Roe overturned. But every poll since then shows a majority of Republicans support what the court did — including 56 percent in a poll released late Wednesday. Perhaps that reflects them better understanding the implications of overturning it, or perhaps it’s due in part to a political rallying effect.

That does leave nearly 4 in 10 Republicans (38 percent) who oppose the ruling — in a party that overwhelmingly opposes abortion rights. And the increase in support on the GOP side has been offset by a shift against the Dobbs v. Jackson opinion among other Americans.

In May, 64 percent of independents said they didn’t want Roe overturned; today, 72 percent disapprove of what the court did. Similarly, Democrats have become slightly more opposed to what the Supreme Court did — from 77 percent wanting the original Roe decision to stand in May to 83 percent disapproving of the court’s decision today.

Overall, the Fox poll shows Americans disapprove by a 63 percent to 32 percent margin — right on par with polls conducted both before and after the decision in Dobbs in late June.

Other polls show a similarly lopsided split: A Quinnipiac University poll two weeks ago showed Americans disapproved 61-34. And a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in July showed the margin at 65-34 against.

The numbers do look slightly better for Republicans and the court when the question comes with language about states setting their own policies. An NBC News poll recently asked about overturning Roe and mentioned that, “Each individual state will now decide whether abortion will be permitted and under what circumstances.” But Americans still opposed it by a 58-38 margin, and a majority — 51 percent — strongly opposed it.

That last poll suggests Republican efforts to emphasize that framing could matter on the margins, but not in a way that makes the decision anything close to popular. And three months later, those efforts really haven’t registered in the overall numbers.

Part of that could be because the decision has rallied support for abortion rights; there is some evidence for that. And again, the Fox poll is instructive: It shows 57 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal either all or most of the time — the highest that number has been in recent years. (It hadn’t crested 52 percent this year.)

It’s also possible that, however much people might be okay with the idea of sending the issue back to the states in theory, seeing what that’s meant in practice — i.e. restrictive bans in many states, sometimes with very limited or no exceptions — is another matter entirely. Polls have long showed even the vast majority of Republicans want exceptions for situations like rape and incest.

Whatever the reasons, the wishful idea that an unpopular Supreme Court decision might eventually grow less so haven’t panned out. And Republicans don’t seem to be able to drive any kind of message that can mitigate what looks to be a sizable political liability.