WashPost Poll: Most Americans Oppose Abortion Clinic Regs; Question Wording Was Slanted Toward Pro-Choice Argument

July 26th, 2013 7:08 PM

Americans hold "[a] complicated mix of views on abortion," the Washington Post insists, reporting the results of a new Washington Post-ABC News poll with interesting data on some roiling controversies in the nation's political discourse regarding abortion. "Poll: Most in the U.S. back stricter time limits, not rules that hinder clinics," a subheadline to Juliet Eilperin's page A6 story in the July 26 paper reads.

But as always, the phrasing of the question and the sampling of the poll respondents tell us a lot about the results. Here's the loaded language regarding the abortion clinic regulation (emphasis mine):

Several states are considering or recently have passed legislation that makes it more difficult for abortion clinics to operate there. Overall is this something you support or oppose?

Yes, the laws' effects may be that abortion clinics have more difficulty operating, but that's because as they are presently constituted and staffed, they fail to meet the more stringent requirements which regulate abortion clinics more like surgical centers -- abortion is, after all an invasive surgery -- than a doctor's office -- which generally do not conduct invasive procedures requiring anesthesia.

A more objective question might have been:

Several states are considering or recently have passed legislation imposing stricter professional, sanitary, architectural, and record-keeping regulations on abortion clinics. Is this something you support or oppose?

Likewise, adding these two sentences might have given respondents more context while fairly described the arguments on the regulation from the respective sides:

Supporters say the regulations will improve clinical safety and benefit patients and the public. Opponents say the added regulations are unnecessary and burdensome and could result in the closing of abortion clinics.

We don't know how the poll respondents would answer a more neutrally-phrased question, but the result of the loaded question is 54 percent opposing new abortion clinic regulations, with 37 percent saying they "strongly" oppose them. By contrast, keep in mind on the question, "Do you think abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases or illegal in all cases," that 55 percent said legal in all or most, with only 20 percent holding the abortion rights absolutist stance of "legal in all cases." Few poll respondents are hard-core pro-choicers, but the loaded question provokes a response averse to further regulating the clinics which perform abortion.

One other explanation for the numbers, however, may be the partisan breakdown of the poll, as Democrats are significantly overrepresented. Only 21 percent of respondents were Republican, while 31 percent were Democratic and 37 percent identified as independent. By contrast, an exit poll of the 2012 electorate was 32.5 percent Republican, 38 percent Democratic, and 29.5 percent independent.

In President Obama's reelection, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by only 5.5 percentage points, but in this poll, they do so by 10 percentage points.

Of course, midterm election cycles, like the forthcoming 2014 race, tend to bring out more seasoned, conservative voters, so that's another grain of salt to season this poll with. It's hard to imagine that a more conservative midterm electorate is going to march to the polls in anger at moves to ratchet up regulations on abortion clinics.

One last thing, it's interesting to note that while the Post's print edition editors opted to tell readers that the nation's voters have a "complicated mix of views on abortion," online editors had a wildly different take, "Most Americans favor restricting abortion at 20 weeks, Post-ABC poll finds." 

Even with a skewed poll and loaded questions, it's pretty clear that the mainstream media's boosterism of pro-choice champion Wendy Davis is having limited success, if any at all. The media have their work cut out for them in spinning the bad news as best they can.