The poll’s margin of error is 2.5 percentage points.
The poll results come as candidates make their post-Labor Day pitch, looking for issues that will motivate voters in what is shaping up to be a closer-than-expected election. Democrats have erased the GOP advantage for control of the Senate and Republicans may end up with a slim majority in the House.
That gun policy ranked ahead of abortion defies conventional wisdom, which holds the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and allow abortion to become all but banned in nearly half the country would be the Democrats’ best rallying cry this cycle to counter Republicans on high gas and food prices as symbols of an economy off track. While the poll confirms abortion is crucial, it also demonstrates it is not the only avenue Democrats have to rally support.
One possible explanation for the results, which saw issues such as criminal justice reform and climate change at the bottom of the list, is that respondents were asked to describe decisive factors for whom they intend to vote in the upcoming election, not necessarily issues of importance to them long term, said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis, emeritus, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“We expected this huge rise in abortion, but the gun thing was a total shock,” he said. “What I think we have is people responding to the most salient short term concerns. … The school shootings of the last six months have led people to really be worried about the weapons that are available.”
President Joe Biden made gun safety a centerpiece of a recent stump speech, touting the Safer Communities Act, and focusing on how children, in particular, are common victims of gun violence.
“Think about the devastation that has occurred,” Biden said in Pennsylvania, which has a competitive Senate and governor’s races. “We have to act for all those kids gunned down on our streets every single day that never make the news.”
The spate of shootings in schools and public places is likely behind voters’ responses, Blendon said.
“That changes the way people think about it,” he said. “The school [shootings] have people scared. It’s not only parents, it’s grandparents. It’s that kids can buy these weapons and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The immediacy of the threat and a sense of helplessness make the issue akin to inflation for many people, Blendon said.
“It’s not an abstract concept,” he said.
Overall, the survey offers good news for Democrats, Blendon said, because the concerns that animate Republican-leaning voters — like gas prices and inflation –— may abate in the coming months while issues like abortion and gun policies will not be settled in November.
“If inflation eases and gas prices ease, it is a real help … for Democrats,” he said, as voters are likely to shift to other concerns like health care, guns and abortion, which tend to turn out more Democratic-leaning voters.
Health care continues to be top of mind for many voters with more than one-third saying it is “extremely important” in their November considerations. And the overwhelming majority of those are concerned with the cost of health care and medicine, as opposed to other issues such as access to medical care or the uninsured rate.
Health care costs and prescription drug prices can have outsized influence during periods of high inflation when Americans are confronted with sticker shock over an array of items and are more sensitive to costs.
Still, abortion may still prove to be particularly salient in some close races. In a similar 2018 POLITICO-Harvard poll, abortion was tied for 11th place among 15 issues; in 2020, it was tied for 14th place out of 19 issues. That’s a much greater shift in attitudes than gun policies, which moved from seventh place in 2020 to third place in 2022.
The poll also showed a large gender gap when it comes to abortion: More than half of women said it is extremely important in how they’ll vote compared to 36 percent of men.
And in some swing states, women are significantly outpacing men in new registrations. In Wisconsin, for example, women have out-registered men by 15.6 percent since Roe fell, according Democratic voter data firm TargetSmart. In Michigan, women are out-registering men by 8.1 percent and Democrats are out-registering Republicans by 18 percent.
Those figures lend credence to one key takeaway from the poll: turnout is key. “If you have a Republican turnout, those issues [inflation and the economy] will dominate,” Blendon said. “If you’re a Democrat and want to increase the turnout, talk about abortion, guns and health care.”
The survey, conducted Aug. 5 to Aug. 22, also found that roughly two-thirds of voters who said abortion was “extremely important” said Congress should enact a federal law protecting abortion rights, while 20 percent believe it should be left up to the states and 15 percent favored a national ban. Notably, 62 percent of Republicans who said abortion was an “extremely important” issue for them said the procedure should be allowed in cases of rape or incest, and 50 percent of those Republicans believe it should be allowed if there is evidence of a serious birth defect.
Indiana, so far the only state to pass a new abortion restriction since Roe fell, allowed for rape and incest exemptions. In South Carolina, which figures to be the second state to pass a new anti-abortion law, a House committee advanced legislation after voting to remove exceptions for incest and rape, though legislative observers say it is unlikely to pass without the exemptions.
Far lower down on the list of “extremely important” issues were Covid-19 (16 percent) and the war in Ukraine (9 percent), which makes sense to Blendon, who suggested those issues are more abstract for most people, many of whom base their upcoming vote on issues affecting their lives now.
“Americans aren’t losing their lives [in Ukraine],” he said. “People are not passionate about their support for that.”
Tucker Doherty contributed to this report.