As Democrats try to shake off their losses and near losses in the bruising 2021 off-year elections, conventional wisdom has emerged about how Democrats should wage next year’s difficult midterm campaign to hang on to control of Congress — and avoid a dangerous trajectory toward the next presidential election. That CW was nicely summarized in the New York Times by a Democratic pollster conducting postelection focus groups in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin broke a long GOP losing streak last month:
People think we’re more focused on social issues than the economy — and the economy is the No. 1 issue right now …
I think some of that is voters reading us talking about things that aren’t economic issues. Part of it is just a natural reaction, too: We’re in an economy they feel is tough. It’s hard for them to think we’ve solved problems when they see so many …
We should spend 2022 talking about things we’ve done to lower costs for working families and to get people back to work.
Democrats have been hearing this sort of advice regularly for years from analysts focused on white working-class voters who have leaned Democratic on economic issues but Republican on cultural ones. It intensified this year as Democrats wondered why news of the all wonderful things they were trying to do to stuff money into the wallets of lower- and middle-class voters wasn’t breaking through the GOP’s chatter about socialism and wokeness and critical race theory. And the traditional counsel “It’s the economy, stupid!” (as James Carville famously put it in 1992) has been strengthened by the so-called popularism being promoted by data analysts like David Shor, who believes Democrats have a narrow path to victory in upcoming elections, as he explained to my colleague Eric Levitz:
If we divide the electorate on self-described ideology, we lose — both because there are more conservatives than liberals and because conservatives are structurally overrepresented in the House, Senate, and Electoral College. So the way we get around that is by talking a lot about progressive goals that are not ideologically polarizing, goals that we share with self-described conservatives and moderates. Even among nonwhite voters, those tend to be economic issues.
So we are hearing more and more voices telling Democrats to figure out how to make voters stop thinking about cultural issues and start thinking about the tasty government benefits Democrats are sending their way — or would send their way if not for the obstructionist GOP.
As it happens, I have spent years arguing against the notion that politicians can dictate what voters care about strictly by refusing to talk about disfavored topics, most recently differing with Shor’s prescriptions:
With all due respect to Shor, Democrats do not have the power to keep “ideological polarization” from happening on cultural issues that he considers party weak points. Indeed, if they are Democratic weak points, Republicans are going to talk about them incessantly, and if Democrats fall silent, Republicans will be free to define Democrats as they wish. Silence is not golden, in other words; in politics, it’s often a big mistake.
I have not, to put it mildly, been winning this argument in the court of elite public opinion. But now, something’s happening that the economics-only crowd might not have entirely anticipated: the likely reversal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court in a decision that will probably be released in June or July, just as the midterm campaigns are heating up.
For pro-choice activists, this will be a calamity and the beginning of an extended period of hand-to-hand combat in state legislatures (and state legislative and gubernatorial elections) around the country. I should hope Democrats aren’t going to tell them, Please, just shut up about it! We want voters to think about money money money!
Beyond the moral urgency of the issue, backlash from a catastrophic Supreme Court decision could provide a political opportunity for Democrats. If Roe falls, Republicans won’t be in a position to resist the demands of anti-abortion activists to put in place the most extreme kinds of legislation, including bans on abortions very early in pregnancy (as in the new Texas law) or with no exceptions for victims of rape or incest (as in Texas and in the Mississippi law being reviewed by SCOTUS). For the anti-abortion movement, every abortion banned is a life saved, and the GOP is too deeply mortgaged to these people to urge caution or moderation once the Court gives them a green light to go wild.
The larger question is how big a deal a threatened return to the abortion laws of the 1960s will be to regular voters. A good overview of public opinion on abortion by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux earlier this week noted that “many Americans just don’t like talking or thinking about abortion” and that they “don’t know a lot about the procedure or restrictions around it.”
That could, of course, change if the “abortion debate” were no longer about vague questions like “Do you consider yourself pro-life?” or hypotheticals involving issues that don’t affect most voters, like late-term abortions, highly technical clinic regulations, or restrictions based on why an abortion is being chosen. An oppressive legal regime in which (as in Texas) an abortion could become illegal before a woman even knows she is pregnant would probably break through quite a bit of indifference, avoidance, or ignorance, certainly among voters of childbearing age. And while it would be most urgent in state elections in Republican-controlled jurisdictions, without question abortion policy would be a national issue as well, particularly since Democrats already favor preemptive federal legislation codifying Roe’s guidelines even if they are no longer constitutionally binding.
Again, I don’t think Democratic candidates or strategists would be wise to tell voters perceiving abortion restrictions as a personal threat to stop thinking about bodily autonomy and focus maniacally on those sweet tax credits the party is sending their way.
Yes, the Court won’t act for a number of months, but the outcome is sufficiently foreordained that we should all anticipate a midterm political landscape that won’t revolve strictly around inflation, supply-chain problems, or even COVID-19 (assuming some doomsday variant doesn’t arrive like a return of the Black Death). Democrats in particular should be prepared for a sudden spike in concern about abortion policy and a radically changed environment in which nearly a half-century of legalized abortion will end in some parts of the country and be threatened nearly everywhere else. The laws Republicans will be promoting are likely to appeal only to the small slice of the electorate that favors making abortion illegal in all, or nearly all, cases with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the mother (all very popular exceptions). And the threat of abortion bans will most offend and galvanize the younger voters who are often the hardest to mobilize in normal midterm elections.
It’s a “culture war” issue Democrats can and should win on and cannot really dodge. So they should get ready now.