Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer displays a “My Body My Decision” shirt at the 14th District Democratic Headquarters in Detroit, Michigan, on Nov. 8, 2022.
Image credit: JEFF KOWALSKY
Prior to midterms, pollsters and strategists and—yes, journalists—were obsessed with voters’ top issues. In poll after poll, including polls conducted by NPR, voters indicated that inflation was the main issue. Despite this, many people don’t vote with a single issue in mind, and that makes it difficult to know how much abortion has impacted midterms.
This year’s midterm elections were certainly unusual — when the president’s approval rating is less than 50 percent (like President Biden’s), their party loses an average of 43 seats in the House in midterm elections. This year, Democratic losses could be in the single digits. As a result, less than six months after the Supreme Court fell Roe against Wadeboth parties are working to find out how big a role abortion played in the midterm elections.
Opinion polls may not predict what drives decision making
First of all: the usefulness of polls to say exactly how many people have included abortion in their voting behavior is extremely limited. It’s true that polls regularly showed Democrats care more about the issue than Republicans this year, which makes sense in the wake of the Dobbs nullification decision Roe. It is also true that there were voters who said that the topic of abortion drove them to vote.
However, the effect was likely much more complicated, says Sarah Longwell, founder of the Republican Accountability Project, which opposes Republicans denying the 2020 election results. She explained a pattern she often saw in swing voter focus groups she led.
“You say, ‘Okay, what are you thinking about?’ They say ‘inflation, the economy, crime, supply chain.’ That’s what they’d say at the top,” Longwell said.
But later on, abortion would come up: “When you get to the voting choice, like ‘Who do you want to vote for? [Arizona Democratic Senate candidate] Mark Kelly or [Republican] Blake Masters?’ People would say, ‘Oh, I’m not voting for Blake Masters. His stance on abortion is insane.” And that theme would repeat with Adam Laxalt in Nevada, with Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, with Tudor Dixon in Michigan, where I think abortion played a big part.”
One way to read this is that abortion wasn’t necessarily top of mind, but it was a prominent data point that supported a narrative that some Republicans were too extreme. That’s how Democratic strategist Tom Bonier sees it.
“My general theory on this is that Dobbs really focused and crystallized these other issues that didn’t really resonate,” he said. numbers. And then Dobbs happens. And I think it made this argument from Republican extremism more real to voters. It connected the dots.”
Voter registration gives some clues, but the wait for data continues
Exit polls have been notoriously messy in recent years, so it will be months before we have reliable data (like Pew Research’s regularly validated voter surveys) on how people voted. However, voter registration data shows that the Roe immediately knock down motivated women.
“Almost everywhere you saw a pretty significant increase in the gender gap in the 2 to 4 weeks after Dobbs,” Bonier said. “And then we saw an increase, but not as pronounced after that.”
However, that leaves a number of questions unanswered. One is which women were motivated. Exit polls generally show that young women broke hard for the Democrats. But then an AARP post-election poll also showed that women over the age of 65 swung significantly at the Democrats between July and November.
There is also the question of the extent to which the issue motivated men – or not. Many polls show that women and men do not differ much in their views on abortion. Data from this election could add new nuances to that data, showing whether the problem is motivating women to vote more than men, or if men just took longer to motivate.
Abortion rights win big over ballot measures
A second takeaway: pro-choice policies, isolated, did well. Five statewide ballots all came out in favor of abortion rights, even in red states like Kentucky and Montana. That comes on top of an August victory for abortion rights supporters on a Kansas ballot.
And yet pro-life candidates also prevailed in some of those places. As Democratic strategist Rachel Bitecofer puts it: “There are millions of people who voted yes to a referendum to Roe or whatever and then went to vote for pro-life conservative Republican candidates.
In addition, numerous politicians famous for restricting abortion won easily – Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, for example.
Why is that? Bitecofer thinks it’s about ineffective communication by abortion rights advocates.
“You want to make sure people understand that this guy is the guy who signs the law to steal your rights,” she said.
However, she added that the problem so far has been voters’ severing ties to party identity.
“People like heuristics. They like something that can tell them what to do without any mental investment. And that’s why the party label is so incredibly powerful,” said Bitecofer.
Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of SBA Pro Life America, which opposes abortion rights. Conversely, she thinks more expenses on the vote, measures would have been key to helping abortion rights supporters prevail. She also sees victories by people like Abbott and DeSantis as proof of their political power.
“The one thing you have in elections on the pro-life side and we’ve always had that is the candidate — a human representation of the argument on the debate stage,” she said. “The reason governors who are ambitious for life win well is that they have articulated their position. They have the governors’ pulpit.”
Longwell, of the Republican Accountability Project, says that for many voters, it’s also simply about the importance of abortion.
“In Texas, people generally like the work Abbott does, right? They thought he had done well with COVID, and culturally they feel like they are more with him than not with him,” she said. “And so people will tolerate being out of line [with him] about something like abortion, especially if it’s not a priority for them.”
So, which messages work?
Another takeaway — one that’s more difficult to quantify — is which messaging strategy worked and how to move forward with the problem. For Dannenfelser, it is clear that the Republicans have failed and the Democrats have found a winning strategy.
“They ended up with a position that we should label Republicans as abortionists in general, and not get into the details of what a Republican is for or a pro-life candidate for,” she said.
Several Democratic strategists agree that it was smart to steer clear of pregnancy limits, though they often don’t see it as portraying Republicans as overly extreme, as Republicans do.
“I think it was not only smart but also good of them to say there is no line, there is no such thing as a countdown clock where you go from a fully autonomous human being to being owned by the state,” said Analilia Mejia , co-director of the progressive Center for People’s Democracy.
Going forward, this leaves open the question of what the parties see as their best path. According to Republican pollster Whit Ayres, his party should abandon the strictest abortion measures.
“We have a number of laws passed by Republican legislators that are far from the mainstream that have no exceptions, say for rape or incest,” he told a post-election panel at the Roper Center for Public Opinion. . “That’s just the definition of being outside the mainstream.”
The question is what Republicans do with that information – what do they see as a winable mainstream position? In the meantime, many Republican candidates avoided the topic of abortion. For Dannenfelser, that was a mistake.
“One thing you can’t do is expect to be a successful Republican primary candidate who says, ‘It’s a matter of the state and I don’t expect to ever promote or sign a 15-week or heartbeat federal protection,'” she said.
Rebecca Katz, senior adviser to John Fetterman’s Senate campaign, also believes her party should not just deliver a message, but act — in this case, to pass legislation on abortion rights.
“I don’t think people should just high-five because we won a cycle with such a devastating impact,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”