Photo of the day

OMG I think this “Winners of the 2021 BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition” may be about my favorite photo gallery ever.  So many great images. This one really sticks with me:A leopard seal swims with its mouth open, toward a penguin, underwater.

Facing Reality. Aquatic Life Finalist. With their silky coats, big, dark eyes, and perpetual grins, leopard seals can look downright cuddly lounging on Antarctic ice floes. It’s safe to say, though, that penguins have a different perspective of these powerful apex predators. Weighing up to 1,320 pounds (600 kilograms), with powerful jaws lined with sharp teeth, leopard seals are capable of catching and subduing a wide range of prey. Studies have shown that leopard seals feed on everything from krill, fish, octopuses, and crabs to penguins and other seals. A recent study conducted on the Antarctic Peninsula, not far from where photographer Amos Nachoum captured this image of a leopard seal preying on a young Gentoo penguin, found that penguins make up about a quarter of the leopard seal’s diet throughout the year. 

Amos Nachoum / BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition

Abortion is going to be big in 2021

It’s not been my main focus, but I’ve been studying public opinion on and the politics of abortion for a long time.  I’ve gotten back into it and feel pretty good about my upcoming APSA paper for this year on the surprising stability of abortion attitudes.  I feel like some expertise on public opinion on abortion is going to really matter for the next few years.  I really loved David Leonhardt’s recent newsletter that did a great job summing up the complexity of abortion attitudes.  My short version: we overwhelmingly treat this as a false “pro-life vs. pro-choice” binary, but attitudes are far more complex, and, often not nearly as strong as media coverage would have you think.  If I had to sum up the median American abortion attitude it would be, “it’s complicated (but should probably be mostly legal).”  Anyway, Leonhardt’s lengthier summary:

Americans’ views on abortion are sufficiently complex that both sides in the debate are able to point to survey data that suggests majority opinion is on their side — and then to argue that the data friendly to their own side is the “right” data. These competing claims can be confusing. But when you dig into the data, you discover there are some clear patterns and objective truths.

Here are five.

Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans — 60 percent to 70 percent, in recent polls by both Gallup and Pew — say they do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. Similarly, close to 60 percent of Americans say they favor abortion access in either all or most circumstances, according to Pew.

These are the numbers that abortion rights advocates often emphasize.

The most confounding aspect of public opinion is a contradiction between Americans’ views on Roe itself and their views on specific abortion policies: Even as most people say they support the ruling, most also say they favor restrictions that Roe does not permit.

Roe, for example, allows only limited restrictions on abortion during the second trimester, mostly involving a mother’s health. But less than 30 percent of Americans say that abortion should “generally be legal” in the second trimester, according to Gallup. Many people also oppose abortion in specific circumstances — because a fetus has Down syndrome, for example — even during the first trimester.

One sign that many Americans favor significant restrictions is in the Gallup data. Gallup uses slightly different wording from Pew, creating an option that allows people to say that abortion should be legal “in only a few” circumstances. And that is the most popular answer — with 35 percent of respondents giving it (in addition to the 20 percent who say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances).

This helps explain why many abortion rights advocates are worried that the Supreme Court will gut Roe without officially overturning it. Yes, the justices are often influenced by public opinion.

Opinion on some major political issues has changed substantially over the last half-century. On taxes and regulation, people’s views have ebbed and flowed. On some cultural issues — like same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization — views have moved sharply in one direction.

But opinion on abortion has barely budged. Here is Gallup’s four-category breakdown, going back to 1994:

 
 
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Credit…By The New York Times | Source: Gallup

Other survey questions show a similar pattern, with the stability stretching back to the 1970s, just after the Roe ruling.

A key reason is that abortion opinion differs only modestly by age group. Americans under 30 support abortion rights more strongly than Americans over 50, but the gap is not huge. The age gaps on marijuana legalizationsame-sex marriage and climate change are all larger.

Abortion remains a vexing issue for large numbers of Americans in every generation — which suggests the debate is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

Gender plays a major role in American politics. Most women voted for Joe Biden, while most men voted for Donald Trump. On many issues, like gun control and the minimum wage, there is a large gender gap.

But the gap on abortion is not so large. If anything, it seems to be smaller than the partisan gap. That suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that there are more Democratic-voting women who favor significant abortion restrictions than Republican-voting women who favor almost universal access — while the opposite is true for men.

(One note: When people are asked whether they identify as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” both the gender and age gaps grow. Those terms appear to prime people to think as Democrats or Republicans, rather than thinking through the details of their own policy views.)

 
 
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Credit…By The New York Times | Source: Pew Research Center

One of the strongest predictors of a person’s view on abortion is educational attainment, as you can see in the chart above. Working-class Americans often favor restrictions. Many religiously observant people also favor restrictions.

It’s yet another way in which the Democratic coalition is becoming tilted toward college graduates and the Republican coalition is going in the other direction.

As mentioned, the research that I’m working on is all about explaining #3.  Short version: countervailing trends of partisan polarization almost perfectly counter-acted by greater education and secularization.  

And good stuff from Ron Brownstein on the politics of all this:

Public opinion over abortion today is much more polarized along party lines than it was in the first decades after the Supreme Court established a nationwide right to it in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Reflecting those divisions, red and blue states are poised to hurtle in radically different directions if the court grants them more leeway to regulate abortion by retrenching, or even reversing, the Roe decision through its ruling in the Mississippi case.

A new Supreme Court ruling providing states greater freedom to restrict abortion access, which could come before the 2022 elections, would dramatically change that equation by making the debate far more tangible.
 
“It’s one thing to say it’s a symbolic issue that signals what team you play for,” says Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan group that studies Americans’ attitudes about cultural issues. “But it’s another thing to say this is something that is actually going to affect people’s lives on the ground, their health, their ability to plan their families. All of these are very concrete ways in which this issue could come out of the abstract intellectual debate into the streets in a way we haven’t seen” for decades.
 
Put another way, while many of today’s most volatile social issue disputes involve statements of values that will touch vanishingly few Americans in their daily lives — very few people, for instance, will ever have to decide whether to bake a cake or take the photos for a same-sex wedding — the potential for significant new restrictions, or even bans, on abortion would amount to a culture war with more widely felt consequences.

Over the succeeding decades, and especially in this century, cultural and racial attitudes have increasingly displaced class interests as the central glue of the parties. That current widened the differences between the parties on abortion. By the time a closely divided Supreme Court reaffirmed the nationwide right to abortion in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, a gap had opened between Republican and Democratic views. In 1991 Gallup results, Democrats were 8 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say abortion should be legal in all circumstances; in the 1992 election, according to the American National Election Studies data, Democrat Bill Clinton ran about 25 points better among those who said abortion should always be legal than with those who said it should never be available.

But even so, in both his 1992 and 1996 elections, Clinton (who famously declared that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare”) won nearly half the voters who wanted abortion available either never or rarely, the National Election Studies found. Since then, as the electorate’s re-sorting along cultural lines has proceeded, the distance between the parties on abortion has exploded.

While the share of Republicans who believed abortion should always be legal rose from the 1970s through the 1990s, Gallup found that by 2020, it had fallen to just 13%. By contrast, the share of Democrats who said abortion should be legal in all circumstances soared to 49% in 2020, well over double its level in the 1970s and early 1980s. In the 2020 presidential race, according to the National Election Studies data, Joe Biden won more than four-fifths of voters who said abortion should always be legal, but only one-fifth of those who said it should always be illegal and fewer than 3 in 10 of those who wanted it only “rarely” available.

The same polarization was evident when congressional Republicans, during Donald Trump’s presidency, advanced legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks. In contrast to the extensive partisan defections in 1983, just two Senate Republicans in 2020 opposed that bill (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine) and only two Senate Democrats (Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia) backed it. The ban fell well short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

In all these ways, a Supreme Court decision eliminating or further restricting abortion rights would land in a country where the issue divides the parties far more starkly than it did at the time of Roe. The separation extends beyond Washington through the states. If the Supreme Court gives states more freedom to limit abortion, nearly two dozen states have laws on the books that would either ban abortion entirely or cut off access much earlier in pregnancy, according to a tabulation by the Guttmacher Institute, a research and advocacy group that studies reproductive issues. Almost all of those states were won by Trump.

So, a lot of what happens politically is in the hands of the Supreme Court.  But despite the overall stability, the patterns of public opinion are starkly different from the last time the Court ruled on abortion and there really could be substantial political ramifications.  

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