Studying the world of politics the thing you find accidentally occasionally turns out more important than what you intended to study, the results of a survey in Louisiana remind us.
Each spring, Louisiana State University’s Public Policy Research Lab conducts the Louisiana Survey, which polls residents on a number of issues of the day in state and national politics. It released the results from this year’s edition in stages, with the final segment addressing views concerning capital punishment and abortion.
It found that for the former a seven-point dip had occurred in approval, down to a bare majority of 51 percent from the last time it asked the question in 2018, although opposition to it didn’t quite increase as much, by four points to 38 percent. More eye-catching, it discovered support for unrestricted or lightly-restricted abortion swung 12 points towards it, from 40 to 46 percent, leaving 49 percent to say they favored many restrictions or a total ban on it.
If the intent were to grab headlines, there were takers. The Louisiana Radio Network, for one, breathlessly informed about the latter result, proclaiming that “Michael Henderson of the LSU Public Policy Research Lab says there’s been slow but steady growth in support for legal access based on results from their 2022 Louisiana survey [sic].”
Whether Henderson actually said that, the text of the released results conveyed much more measured analysis omitting such a claim. Indeed, with just two data points you really can’t make a claim about rate of change. All you can say is there has been a change, and the text didn’t claim support for legal access increased, although a quick check of the results used as a baseline, from 2016, showed the proportion stating it should be legal in all cases did rise from 13 to 23 percent.
On the surface, these results would suggest some erosion in support for both permissiveness of the death penalty and pro-life sentiments. Then again, the sampling frame used six years apart noticeably was different. In 2016 the roughly 1,000 respondents all came from telephone interviews, but in 2022 they came from a mélange of voice interviews by phone, written responses triggered by text messages, and volunteers gathered by an online pollster. This nonprobability technique applied to half the total sample attempted to pump up responses to about 1,000, but ended up picking a sample somewhat unrepresentative of the benchmark figures for several demographic characteristics intended to replicate the population.
That made for a sample that had higher educational attainment, was older, and had more females. On balance, this could explain at least in part the higher abortion approval figure, assuming the 2016 sample better fit the population, and in part likely overestimates actual abortion support in the state.
Perhaps more of a revelation, mentioned only in passing in the survey’s text explaining its results, comes by way of the observation while overall Republican pro-life support remained almost unchanged. The two more pro-life categories of respondents went from 73 to 69 percent, and the other two went from 23 to 24 – a predictable, perhaps even random, movement over time.
Not so with Democrats, whose pro-abortion stance in those two categories shot up from 51 to 74 percent, while those with pro-life sentiments plunged from 42 to 19 percent. Independents also moved, although less dramatically, with pro-abortion sentiment going from 40 to 47 percent and pro-life feelings dipping from 56 to 50.
It makes little sense, thinking one set of partisans dramatically changed their minds while the others hardly did, but the outcome becomes comprehensible when considering the poll didn’t use partisanship as a baseline to build the sample, so whatever distribution showed up came as a consequence of shaping around those other demographic characteristics. Meaning that any changes observed in six years aren’t really a result of the same people changing their minds, but of different compositions for each partisan group – particularly because the samples don’t seem all that comparable.
Thus, the change observed came because of some Democrats ceasing to think of themselves as such as the party’s elites and articulated issue preferences has veered sharply to the political left over the past decade, and they took with them their more moderate attitudes about abortion and other issues as they populated the ranks of the no party/independents and Republicans. The remaining Democrats therefore make all Democrats appear much more extreme than they did even just a few years ago.
So, the real story from this poll isn’t the abortion attitudes, which may be more of a sampling artifact than the pollster may wish to admit, but that Louisiana Democrats mirror the rest of the country in becoming rapidly an extremist political party less and less capable of winning elections except in unusual circumstances – to which their near shutout in statewide offices and near super-minority status in the Legislature already attest.