National Opinions

OPINION: Abortion is the big X factor in midterm elections

When the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade leaked in early May, political professionals split over its potential effect on the midterm elections this fall. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who has surveyed public opinion on abortion for years, was among those predicting it would be a major shaping force. Others weren’t so sure, pointing out that attention spans are fleeting and suggesting most Americans would move on.

With the election a month away, it’s safe to say a verdict is in: Lake was right. Abortion rights are shaping up as a big midterm factor. Democratic hopes of holding onto Congress may even hinge on them.

Back in January, Lake told me women under 40 would be a key group to watch if Roe were struck down. At the time, there was little to indicate abortion rights would play a significant role in the fall elections. Only 9% of women and 3% of men in her surveys said it would be the most important issue driving their vote.

When I checked back with Lake last week, though, those numbers -- and every other indicator of Democratic awareness and enthusiasm -- had flipped. Abortion is now among the top Democratic concerns. And the three primary measures of voter enthusiasm have all jumped: self-reported likelihood to vote; new voter registration; and turnout in recent special elections, such as in Alaska, where the pro-choice Democrat Mary Peltola beat Sarah Palin to win a House seat, and in Kansas, where voters soundly defeated a ballot measure that would have allowed legislators to ban abortion. Democrats’ hopes for Election Day have risen as a result. “Republicans are always enthusiastic,” Lake says. “It’s our side that ebbs and flows.”

Kansas offers a striking illustration of how the demise of Roe is reshaping the electorate. The state saw a surge of new Democratic voter registrants -- one that was tilted heavily toward women, and especially women under 40, just as Lake had predicted. “Seventy percent of new registrants in Kansas are women,” says Tom Bonier, CEO of the Democratic data firm TargetSmart, “and in nearly every other state we’ve looked at, the gender gap in voter registration has increased since the Supreme Court decision.”

There was no guarantee Democratic enthusiasm would endure in quite the way that it has after the court overturned Roe in June. Lake grew concerned last September when a spike in Democratic intensity following a Texas law banning most abortions quickly diminished.

But the end of Roe has been different in that it’s become a sort of perpetual news-generating machine that keeps abortion front-and-center. There was the awful saga of the 10-year-old Ohio girl who had an abortion after being raped, and the subsequent harassment of the doctor who performed the procedure. Newspapers and social media are filled with accounts of doctors suddenly afraid to treat ectopic pregnancies and hospitals retaining lawyers to help them determine whether a woman’s condition is sufficiently life-threatening to justify an abortion. Pregnant cancer patients now face wrenching choices about whether they can legally terminate their pregnancies to receive treatment.

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Prominent Republicans such as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham have also ensured that abortion doesn’t fade from public attention. In September, Graham introduced legislation that would institute a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks. Republican candidates, too, some with positions well outside the mainstream, have helped to make the issue central to the fall campaign. Tudor Dixon, a Republican running for Michigan governor, for example, made headlines by stating that victims of child rape and incest victims should be forced to carry their pregnancies to term.

With polls showing that 85% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in some or all cases, Democrats are, of course, doing everything they can to keep abortion in the news. Last week, President Biden attacked “The MAGA Republicans [who] cheered and embraced the first Supreme Court decision in our entire history that just didn’t fail to preserve a constitutional freedom - it actually took away a fundamental right that had been granted by the same court to so many Americans.” Lake estimates that of the $6.4 billion spent on television, radio, and social media ads this cycle, one-third of the Democratic output has focused on abortion. “That’s helping keep it alive,” she says.

Will it also keep the Democratic governing trifecta -- White House, House, Senate -- alive after November?

That’s much less clear. For all the momentum Democrats have enjoyed in registering new voters, they’re not likely to be decisive in many races. Even in high-turnout elections such as 2018, new voters generally only compose about 7%-9% of the total votes cast. “To me,” says Bonier, “the relevant point here isn’t the potential for a flood of new voters - it’s a potential indicator of enthusiasm.”

What’s more important than new voters is whether low-propensity or infrequent voters will turn out. A recent NBC News poll found that overall voter interest in the midterms is running higher in 2022 than it was at the same point in 2018, nearly at the level of a presidential campaign. The problem for Democrats is that a lot of those interested voters are Republicans.

While the Roe decision has roused Democratic voters, that shift in momentum has allowed the party to match Republican enthusiasm, not necessarily overcome it. The conditions that favored Republicans before the decision -- Biden’s low approval rating, anger over inflation and the historical dynamic that favors the out party in midterm elections -- all still apply.

Lake was right that abortion would activate many Democratic voters, and every sign indicates this momentum will boost Democratic turnout on Nov. 8. Whether this turns out to be the Democrats’ salvation will depend on how much, and in what races, those increases occur. Here, Lake’s crystal ball grows cloudy. “All of us are finding it very hard to predict what is going to be the turnout model here,” she says. “That’s the only question left on the table.”

Joshua Green is a national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek and the author of “Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency.”

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