Abortion and gun control aren’t litmus issues for most Maryland voters

Published on: July 01, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

Supporters of the baltimore Abortion Fund and the Women's March attend a rally in protest of the overturning of Roe V. Wade at the federal courthouse in Baltimore.

What happened last Friday at the U.S. Supreme Court was an outrage for Bethesda resident Julie Paquin.

A transplant from California, Paquin, 68, said she has prioritized living in a blue state where most of her political positions are validated by local elected officials — a standard that she said has only been further entrenched by last week’s watershed decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion.

“I don’t know what country we’re living in, what century we’re living in,” Paquin said of the high court’s Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, which struck down nearly 50 years of precedent affirming a right to terminate a pregnancy.

Support for abortion access is a hard line for Paquin. The retired pediatric rheumatologist said she would never vote for a candidate with an opposing view on the issue.

But while Paquin’s unwavering support for abortion rights may not be rare among Democrats, a new statewide poll by Goucher College, in partnership with The Baltimore Banner and WYPR, suggests that she is among a minority of Maryland voters with inflexible stances on the controversial medical procedure.

Forty-four percent of Democratic respondents and 45% of Republican respondents said they see a candidate’s position on abortion as “one of many important factors” in determining their vote. That’s compared to 30% of Democrats and just 16% of Republicans who drew a harder line, saying they would only back candidates who shared their views on abortion.

Marylanders feel passionately about a host of issues that have historically motivated voter behavior, but the poll results suggest that many have more malleable commitments when they get to the ballot box. On top of abortion, the poll revealed a slew of issues have grabbed voters’ attention, including the quality of schools, high crime, inflation and $5 per gallon gasoline — all issues that were concerns for at least four out of every five Democratic and Republican poll respondents.

When it comes to guns, Maryland voters seem to be even more flexible than they are on abortion. Fifty-five percent of Democrats and 53% of Republicans said they consider gun control among many factors — not as a sole determinant — when deciding how to cast their ballot.

The Banner survey was conducted prior to last week’s landmark Supreme Court decision striking down the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which made legal abortion access the law of the land for decades, but after a leaked draft of the court’s majority opinion alerted the country to the impending outcome. The poll was conducted by landlines and cellphones between June 15-19, and has a margin of error of 4.4%.

Paquin, who responded to the poll, said she was surprised to hear that so many people expressed more open voter preferences on abortion. While she remembers what it was like to live in a country without legal avenues to terminate a pregnancy, she believes “we’re heading back to something far worse,” a reality she said many younger poll respondents may not yet appreciate.

“The 30- and 40 year-olds haven’t lived in a pre-Roe world. Let’s see how they like it,” she said.

‘Must haves’ and ‘red flags’

While respondents who expressed hard lines on abortion and guns may not be precisely described as “single-issue voters,” Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College who oversaw the new Banner poll, said they have a kind of litmus test for candidates, evaluating their stances on hot button issues as either “must haves” or “red flags.”

In the crowded field of contenders for Maryland’s Democratic primary, Kromer noted that policy positions tend to align closely on most issues. But while the Democratic race is unlikely to test Marylanders’ commitments on guns or abortion, the general election could be a different story.

A series of seismic events over the last few weeks — including the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 elementary school students and two teachers, and back-to-back weeks of landmark Supreme Court rulings on state-level gun regulations and the right to abortion — have left a “really big, looming question” over the general election in Maryland, particularly for Democrats, Kromer said.

One scenario in particular could test their commitments: if Kelly Schulz, the former Secretary of the Maryland Department of Commerce, wins the Republican primary.

Schulz has aligned her campaign with the broadly popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and maintained a tightrope position on abortion. In the wake of Friday’s Supreme Court decision, she reiterated that while she is personally anti-abortion, as governor she would respect the preferences of the Maryland electorate and uphold the state’s permissive abortion laws.

While Democrats in Maryland have looked past social issues to deliver Hogan to two terms in Annapolis, a Schulz nomination would test whether liberal voters still feel they can relegate preferences on issues like abortion and gun control to the backburner, Kromer said.

“Can you say that now in a post-Roe era?” Kromer asked of Schulz’s abortion promise. “We’ll find out if she wins.”

For Steven Colella, a Republican who recently moved from Carroll County to Prince George’s County, last week’s ruling at the Supreme Court has vaulted abortion to the top of his priority list in this year’s elections.

An avid supporter of Hogan, Colella described himself as an issues-focused voter and said he wants to see abortion access maintained in Maryland. He wants a governor who upholds the will of the people on the issue, as Schulz has pledged to do, but he also said he would be willing to vote across party lines to support the candidate he believes is championing data-driven solutions on a variety of concerns.

Colella likes both Schulz and former state comptroller Peter Franchot, who is locked in a dead heat for the Democratic nomination, and said he would have a hard choice in the general election if it comes down to the two of them.

“Literally today, there’s a landmark issue, mere weeks before the primary, and it’s going to have an impact on my decision,” Colella said.

Robert Smythe, a resident of Chevy Chase in Montgomery County and poll respondent, listed local transportation and climate change among his top concerns and added that he could never support a candidate opposed to abortion access or seeking to relax Maryland’s laws on gun ownership.

“If he or she is a Republican, I’m not going to vote for them. Period,” he said. “They have forfeited their right to be an opposition party. They’re neo-fascists now.”

The 79-year-old added the caveat that he doesn’t view Hogan in that harsh light, but said he probably still couldn’t vote for a Republican with the more centrist views of the current governor.

A plurality of Marylanders believe abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, according to the Banner poll, while a plurality of both men and women said they consider abortion as one of many factors when deciding how to vote.

At the same time, the survey revealed two demographic groups of predominately “must haves”/”red flags” voters on abortion: women who believe abortion should be legal under any circumstances and men who believe it should never be legal.

About 3.5 times as many women believed abortion should always be legal as men who believed it should always be illegal. Within those groups about half of men who thought abortion should always be illegal said they exclusively vote for candidates who are anti-abortion, and 39% of women who thought abortion should always be legal vote only for pro-choice candidates.

On firearm restrictions, Republican respondents were significantly more split than Democratic respondents. Seventy-four percent of Democrats said they would favor stricter laws in Maryland on the sale of firearms, with just 16% supporting the status quo and 6% expressing a preference for more lenient regulations. Meanwhile, 30% of Republicans said they favor looser laws on gun control, 37% said the laws should be kept as they are and another 28% said they would support stricter regulations.

Men and women respondents mostly agreed that guns are just one of a number of issues they juggle in making their ballot decisions, but a Banner analysis of the survey results found two more hard-line camps: both men who want more lax gun laws and women who want laws tightened were most likely to say they will only vote for candidates who share their views.

Competing factors

Respondents to the Banner’s poll suggested that, while they have strong views on abortion and gun control, their decisions are influenced by a host of other factors, including the environment, schools, crime and inflation.

How this mix of issues will end up influencing voters at the ballot box this July and November remains an open question.

Eitan Hersh, a political science professor at Tufts University, said single-issue voters tend to be produced by “asymetric responses” to political events and trends.

For example, most conservatives likely would not have put school curriculums at the top of their priority list a few years ago, Hersh noted, but the feeling that “the status quo was changing against them” has turned so-called critical race theory into a rallying cause for Republicans.

The translation of this phenomenon on abortion could be complicated, Hersh noted, in part because Democrats have a multiracial coalition with a diversity of views on the procedure. But the Tufts professor said many Democrats will no doubt be motivated by the sudden, broad-based rollback of a constitutional right that had been enshrined for decades.

“We feel loss much more than we feel gain,” he said.

Reporter Nick Thieme contributed to this story.