If there was one inescapable takeaway from the midterm elections, it was this: Abortion is a losing issue for Republicans.
Despite reams of historical evidence suggesting November 2022 was going to produce a “red wave,” Democrats racked up dramatic wins, seizing state and federal offices and retaining control of the Senate. Much of the post-election data on why was messy— except when it came to abortion. On that issue, study after study showed that support for abortion rights after the overturn of Roe v. Wade in June was a major — and often deciding — factor. The implicit political advice to Republicans couldn’t be clearer: Back off the draconian abortion restrictions. They’ve done no such thing, however.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) passed a resolution on Monday calling for more attacks on reproductive rights, arguing that the reason Republicans lost so many races in November was that the party wasn’t anti-abortion enough. “Instead of fighting back and exposing Democratic extremism on abortion, many Republican candidates failed to remind Americans of our proud heritage of challenging slavery, segregation, and the forces eroding the family and the sanctity of human life,” read the resolution. To fix the problem, the RNC argued, Republicans need to pass even harsher anti-abortion laws, such as banning first trimester abortions. This resolution was one of the first orders of business after Ronna McDaniel won a fourth term as chair of the RNC, showcasing how serious GOP leadership is about doubling down on anti-choice politics.
Why Republicans would want to go harder on an issue that most data shows hurts them at the polls is puzzling, initially. But a new study from PerryUndem, which specializes in crafting nuanced polls that dig into the deeper motivations of American voters, suggests why that might be. Their numbers show that, even as the country has grown more progressive on gender and sexuality, sexist views among Republican voters have only grown more entrenched. In addition, the data makes it clear that the driving force behind anti-abortion policies is a belief that women are not smart or moral enough to be allowed control over their own bodies.
The single best predictor of whether someone opposes abortion rights is if they subscribe to negative stereotypes about women.
“The research tells us that anti-abortion attitudes” have little to do with “babies or when life begins,” Tresa Undem, the co-founder of PerryUndem, told Salon. Instead, “views are about one’s fundamental beliefs toward women.” When it comes to Republicans, “they hold the most hostile sexist views.”
In other words, to keep the GOP base motivated to donate, volunteer, and vote in elections, the Republican party needs to appeal to sexist attitudes. The most effective way to win over misogynist voters is to attack reproductive rights.
As the study shows, the single best predictor of whether someone opposes abortion rights is if they subscribe to negative stereotypes about women and/or are committed to “traditional” gender roles. It’s not just that anti-choice respondents were far more likely than pro-choice respondents to believe that “women are too easily offended” of “white men are the most attacked group in the country right now.” Abortion opponents were also more likely to deny that it’s rape if a man forces himself on his wife. A majority of anti-abortion respondents also believed men understand the biology of abortion better than women do. Over two-thirds of people who support abortion bans agreed “it bothers me when a guy acts like a girl,” while only 28% of pro-choice people disliked men they perceive as effeminate.
Feminist writer Jill Filipovic summarized the findings by arguing that Republicans are “almost comically insecure when it comes to gender and gender roles,” and tend to view women as “overly-sensitive, irresponsible and immoral, ruining the natural order of things, and in need of male authority.”
Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.
Undem singled out one poll question in particular, which asked if “there are many irresponsible women who will decide to have an abortion up until the moment of birth.” The factually correct answer to this question is “no.” As family practitioner Dr. Meera Shah told Salon after failed Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz invoked this myth during a debate, “That’s just not something that happens,” and it “doesn’t even make sense,” because you can’t “abort” a pregnancy that is full-term. You just deliver the baby.
“It’s absurd,” Undem said, “to believe that one woman, let alone ‘many,’ will decide to have an elective abortion, at say 39 weeks carrying around an 8-pound baby, out of irresponsibility.” And yet their polling data shows that nearly 8 out of 10 people who oppose abortion rights believe a sexist myth that defies not just medical science, but common sense.
The issue isn’t abortion. It’s women’s autonomy.
The PerryUndem research comports with another study published in Political Psychology in November, which examines the attitudes about abortion among self-described libertarians, who mostly tend to vote Republican. Researchers found that this group opposed reproductive rights, but only for women. They supported laws giving men veto power over women’s abortions, as well as “financial abortion” laws that allow a man to opt out of financially supporting a child if a woman refuses to abort a pregnancy. Libertarians, researchers found, have “support for men’s and not women’s reproductive autonomy.”
These findings help explain why the revelation Republican candidate for Georgia’s Senate seat, Herschel Walker, lost very little Republican support during the 2022 election, despite widespread reports that he had demanded that two ex-girlfriends get abortions. The issue isn’t abortion, but women’s autonomy. If the perception is that a man made the abortion choice for a woman, most Republican voters will not hold it against him at the polls.
Sexist stereotypes about things other than abortion often get attached to bills restricting reproductive rights. In Tennessee, for instance, a bill allowing rape victims to get abortions comes with a poison pill provision that will likely prevent most, if not all, requests for the exception: If a patient makes a “false report or statement,” they can go to prison for a minimum of three years. But, as journalist Jessica Valenti points out, “women across the country have been accused—and arrested!—for making false reports for reasons as simple as a police officer didn’t believe them.” So-called “false” allegations are often quite true, but victims get snared by the myth that women make up rape accusations to get revenge or conceal their own sexual activity. In reality, false rape reports are estimated to be about .5% of overall rape numbers. Lying about rape to the authorities is vanishingly rare. Fear of being accused of lying, however, will likely prevent women from seeking help.
On January 15, a Planned Parenthood in Peoria, Illinois was set on fire, causing what the clinic says is over a million dollars in damages. Soon authorities arrested a 32-year-old man named Tyler Massengill who admitted to the arson after initially denying the charges. The reason for the attack he gave? He was still bitter over an ex-girlfriend getting an abortion a full three years ago. Sure enough, reporters soon dug up Massengill’s extensive arrest record, which included two charges of domestic battery. Massengill took his behavior to the next level, but, as the PerryUndem data shows, this controlling attitude towards women is all too common, especially among Republican voters.
Tapping into these standard sexist views is “why Republicans can succeed using the rhetoric they do,” Undem told Salon. Republicans know that there’s no substantive voting constituency for their economic policies. Tapping into this anger over women’s economic and social gains allows the party to reach voters who would not be motivated by spending cuts to Social Security or tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. So while most Americans may reject the misogyny that underpins abortion bans, the anti-choice message is tapping a larger group of voters than Republicans could otherwise access. If they give up sexism now, they risk losing their core voters without necessarily getting new ones to replace them. Misogyny has been central to the Republican brand for too long, it turns out, for them to risk changing course now.