No such thing as public opinion, example #289

Polls do not measure public opinion, because public opinion is not an objective reality. It depends on how you ask the questions.

Steve Chapman has an excellent column that illustrates this idea using the abortion issue:

But the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Authority shattered that complacency. Many if not most people were shocked to see a basic liberty go up in smoke. A Pew poll taken days after the ruling found  57% of Americans disapproved of it, while 43% strongly disapproved. More Democrats strongly disapproved of the ruling than Republicans strongly approved of it. Support for legal abortion has registered a significant and lasting increase. Gallup found that 69% of Americans now believe the procedure should be legal through the first three months of pregnancy, up from 60% in 2018. It also found that 37% think it should be allowed in the second three months, up from 28% in 2018.

So which is it? If 57% oppose the Supreme Court decision, then presumably at least 57% favor legal abortion. (Maybe more, I don’t oppose the Dobbs decision but am also pro-choice.) And yet we are told that only 37% favor legal abortion in the second trimester.

Chapman points out that the behavior of voters does not seem to reflect these polls:

You might figure that if 63% of Americans oppose allowing second-trimester abortions, the 15-week cutoff would be an easy sell. But the court’s reversal has engendered great suspicion of measures that fall short of restoring the old status quo. When Virginians heard Youngkin propose a ban after 15 weeks, they apparently didn’t focus on “15 weeks”; they focused on “ban.” 

If the polls were accurate, then abortion should be a winning issue for less extreme Republicans like Youngkin. It isn’t. Once voters are faced with the reality of the issue, opinions change rapidly:

It’s not surprising that support has grown for permitting second-trimester abortions. The post-Dobbs experience has given Americans a new understanding of the dangers of curbing access, thanks to heartbreaking stories about women whose fetuses suffer from severe and even fatal defects but who are forced to carry them to term. Even women with complications that put their own lives at risk have found doctors unwilling to perform abortions for them. After passing its strict ban, Texas saw an 11.5% increase in infant mortality.

Many people don’t have a settled view of abortion—it depends how you ask the question. And this is true for many other issues. Consider these two poll questions:

1. Should prostitution be legal?

2. Should prostitutes be put in prison?

Will the responses be consistent?

(Yes, a person might say “Keep it illegal but have them pay a fine.” But that’s not really any different from “Make it legal and put a tax on the activity.”)



19 Responses to “No such thing as public opinion, example #289”

  1. Gravatar of Grant Gould Grant Gould
    26. November 2023 at 14:18

    I think the problem that allegedly moderate Republicans face is a simple trust/precommitment problem: None of them will say, “I will vote against / veto any measure more restrictive than X,” so the fact that they “favor” restriction X is meaningless — they will be presented with, and will vote for, a more restrictive measure. More to the point, _everyone knows it_, so their more restrictive co-partisans will certainly propose that more restrictive measure, certain of their vote.

    A candidate who said “I support X and will not support anything more than X” would be at an advantage, but given the advantage of incumbency there is no time-consistent way to establish the sincerity of that commitment.

  2. Gravatar of Matthias Matthias
    26. November 2023 at 16:15

    There’s also the good old framing of:

    – Should the government do X?


    – Should the government use your hard earned tax dollars to do X?

  3. Gravatar of Sara Sara
    26. November 2023 at 18:31

    It’s NOT like a tax. Everyone must pay a tax. Tax is complusory. You cannot escape it.

    A fine, on the other hand, can be avoided. It’s retributive. It is only paid by the wrongdoer, who makes a choice to engage in that activity. And unlike a tax, the fine is designed to be so high that it’s not worth engaging in the activity. Nobody wants to give three blowjobs, then give all of that blowjob money to the state.

    And since when is abortion a basic right? Precisely, where is that right listed in the constitution? I will wait until hell freezes over for you to provide that answer.

    Oh, I see. You want to change the constitution to include abortion in the bill of rights.

    Well, there is a proper way to do that. It’s called ammending the constitution. It isn’t called “Doing what Sumner wants to do because he feels like it.” Even Dershowitz, who wants abortion to be a basic right, wrote that Roe v Wade was bad law. There is simply no justification in the constitution for federal control over abortion laws.

    And just for the record.

    Nobody with any degree of decency wants unsolicted, half-naked, drug fueled women approaching their car door at a stop light.

    Some misguided folks advocate for a walking street, like in Pattaya, where it’s legal to engage in prostitution and other degenerate behavior. But we know from experience that this only recruits drugs, crime, and some pretty nasty tourism. If you want to see all of the world’s biggest losers: dorks who can’t get laid, ugly old fat people kissing 16 year olds, murderers, rapists, and other nasties, just go to Pattaya.

    Do we want to recruit such people in our country?
    Sensible people do not.
    Sensible Thai people also reject Pattaya, and have been trying to get their politicians (now benefactors of drug/prostitution money) to change the laws.

  4. Gravatar of Jonathan Miller Jonathan Miller
    26. November 2023 at 19:14

    To me, and I think to many other people, something being illegal with a fine is very different than something just being taxed. Most importantly, I do my best not to engage in illegal activities, and an activity being illegal impacts how comfortable I am with others doing it as well, it gives moral weight.

    Taxes are very different. I don’t even try particularly hard to minimize my taxes; as long as I am not paying a much higher rate than I should be I am not concerned. Paying taxes is a positive thing.

  5. Gravatar of Ricardo Ricardo
    26. November 2023 at 19:37

    Killing a fetus is not a basic right.

    Leave it to the states or convince states to amend the constitution.

    The problem with the left is that whenever they don’t get their way, they threaten violence, try to cancel the opposing party, or try to insert activist judges who refuse to follow the law.

  6. Gravatar of Stan Greer Stan Greer
    27. November 2023 at 04:57

    Sumner fails to note several important and relevant facts. One, the GOP far overperformed in the VA state elections this year relative to 2020. GOP candidates carried 10 of the 12 state Senate seats Joe Biden won by 55% or less, and picked up a state Senate seat. If abortion hurt the GOP in VA, it’s unlikely that would be the case. Another key fact Sumner ignores is that voters in red states have been electing and reelection pro-life governors and U.S. senators by wide margins even as pro-aboriton forces have carried the day in ballot measure battles. That suggests voters are not actually, on balance, as afraid of restricting abortion through public policy. E.g., the GOP in FL appears to be more popular than ever after DeSantis signed a ban after six weeks. This post seems mostly like the wishful thinking of a virulently pro-abortion old man.

  7. Gravatar of Stan Greer Stan Greer
    27. November 2023 at 05:34

    It’s hard to believe Sumner isn’t aware of Ramesh Ponnuru’s analysis of the 2023 Virginia elections, since he often cites Ponnuru’s work favorably. But Sumner draws the opposite conclusion about what happened in Virginia without even attempting to address what Ponnuru says. Not a very honest way of approaching punditry.

  8. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. November 2023 at 09:57

    Sara, You people hate freedom. What’s wrong with you? You want the government to be your nanny, telling you what you can and cannot do? Are you a child?

    Trump banged a porn star, would you send him to prison?

    Stan, The GOP did worse than expected in VA, and has been badly losing every abortion vote, even in deep red states. Dream on.

  9. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. November 2023 at 10:00

    Jonathan, You said:

    “and an activity being illegal impacts how comfortable I am with others doing it as well, it gives moral weight.”

    Like jaywalking? Like throwing away junk mail accidentally delivered to the wrong address? It used to be illegal to marry people of a different race—did that give it “moral weight” to you? Gay sex used to be illegal—did that have moral weight?

  10. Gravatar of Stan Greer Stan Greer
    27. November 2023 at 10:16

    Worse than who expected? Youngkin? He had to say that in order to raise money. Anyway, if Democrats nationally perform in 2024 as badly relative to 2020 as they performed in Virginia in 2023 relative to 2020, then Democrats will lose the White House, the Senate and House of Representatives. I am not predicting that will happen. But that is not how you depicted the VA election results at all. BUt I guess it is stupid of me to even hope that you care about the facts with regard to abortion or other matters you care about, except for monetary policy. In that one area you do seem to want to get things right.

  11. Gravatar of Stan Greer Stan Greer
    27. November 2023 at 10:20

    By the way, Scott, did you notice which party did better in Louisiana’s 2023 elections, where an abortion ban has been adopted? Or how every statewide race in KY except the governor’s race turned out? In KY, a pro-abortion gov was reelected after his veto of pro-life legislation was overriden. Hard to see that as a statement of support for abortion, except if you’re Scott Sumner.

  12. Gravatar of Tacticus Tacticus
    27. November 2023 at 20:22

    Amazing how these trolls just hate whatever stance you take on any issue. It’s almost like they are just trolls who hate you and are not real people with real views…

  13. Gravatar of miro miro
    28. November 2023 at 05:27

    The GOP did not find some magic abortion strategy that helped them in Virginia. They outperformed 2020 because it was an off-season election, as the GOP always does.

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. November 2023 at 14:11

    Everyone, The abortion foes are losing every single race; it’s not just Virginia. Wake up people, abortion restrictions are unpopular with voters.
    Does this predict the 2024 election? Clearly not, as Trump will win.

    Tacticus, When the trolls say “Sumner supports X”, you can be almost certain that I oppose X.” That’s what makes people like Sara, Edward and Ricardo so pathetic—they don’t even know how to troll.

  15. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    28. November 2023 at 19:01

    Universality is rooted in a fundamental truth. Clearly, there is no cross cultural truth when it comes to abortion rights. Cross culturally, we can all agree that bodily integrity is a universal right. But we cannot all agree on when the right to life begins.

    The UN has been pushing for “Human rights” or “basic rights”, and suggests that we include economic and social rights (often called secondary rights), but many of the rights proposed are not derived through logical analysis.

    When locke spoke about private property as an inalienable right, his view was rooted in logic. It was an emperical observation. If one creates something with their hands, with their mind, then it belongs to them. That’s a powerful concept rooted in what he called the state of nature.

    But abortion doesn’t really have that logic. Some woman scream right to my body, but obviously there is another body that must be considered. When does that body have a right to life? If one is living in New York, third trimester abrotions might be the norm. If one is living in Alabama, abortion will probably be illegal unless you’ve been raped.

    In both cases, it’s perfectly reasonable. I cannot understand why people like Scott feel they have to impose their will upon a religious majority in the state of Texas or Alabama.

    And the argument that abortion is a ‘Basic right” or an ‘inalienable right’ is not rooted in logic. You cannot use the autonomy argument, because we could turn that around and simply say that the fetus has autonomy too.

  16. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    29. November 2023 at 07:15


    You have the framework right but skip the logical conclusion. Yes abortion rights end when another human person has rights…but when is that? Almost everyone agrees that a 3rd trimester pregnancy is a ‘baby’ with rights and that a fertilized egg isn’t. So where to draw the line?

    A large majority supports abortion rights in the first 3 months, both in the US and in the world. Later than that and support drops off (for nonmedical abortions), and that’s my stance too.

    And nowhere are ‘third trimester abortions ‘the norm”. No doctors will perform a nonmedical abortion in the 3rd trimester even in NY.

    When voters get to directly vote on it, they always support at least some abortion rights, never bans or 6 week bans or whatever.

  17. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    29. November 2023 at 09:53

    Edward, “I cannot understand why people like Scott feel they have to impose their will upon a religious majority in the state of Texas or Alabama.”

    Of course I don’t want to do that. You cannot understand anything I write, so why should this be any different.

  18. Gravatar of Student Student
    30. November 2023 at 06:52

    Public opinion polls are worthless, but you’re right… they are phrase dependent. But no opinions about abortion make any sense, aggregated or otherwise.

  19. Gravatar of Student Student
    30. November 2023 at 06:53

    *are not worthless…

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