life after roe

How Abortion Transformed Democrats’ Midterm Chances

An anti-abortion ballot measure in Kansas created a major backlash. Photo: Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

As the 2022 primaries wind down and the general-election campaigns intensify, cautious Democratic optimism is everywhere, fueled by lower gasoline prices, a possible “soft landing” in which inflation abates without a serious recession, a burst of congressional activity, and some questionable candidate choices by Republican primary voters. But perhaps the biggest reason things are looking up for Democrats is the anger and determination generated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s abolition of federal constitutional abortion rights in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision.

Key indicators such as the generic congressional ballot took a turn in the Democrats’ favor almost immediately after Dobbs dropped in June. The party also did better than expected in special congressional elections in Nebraska and Minnesota. And the biggest sign that the tide had turned came in heavily Republican Kansas on August 2, when the first direct opportunity for voters to weigh in on abortion policy produced an overwhelming pro-choice victory.

Here are the specific ways the backlash to the fall of Roe v. Wade might benefit Democrats in November.

Democratic voter registration and turnout could get a boost.

So-called midterm falloff has been a chronic problem for Democrats; some of their key voting groups, particularly young voters, tend to skip non-presidential elections. This disadvantage is typically more serious when a Democratic president is in office and becomes the object of all sorts of voter discontent, as is currently the case (reflected in Joe Biden’s chronically poor job-approval ratings). So the Kansas primary dominated by the anti-abortion ballot measure was particularly encouraging for the party, as Democrats turned out at a higher rate than Republicans despite there being more significant candidate primaries on the GOP side of the ballot. There was also a bump in Democratic registration prior to the August 2 vote, and the new registrants skewed heavily female, as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin notes:

The electorate in Kansas “changed dramatically” in the days after a draft of the court’s Dobbs decision leaked in May, the TargetSmart analysis indicates. “Kansans turned out in record numbers in the primary and delivered a victory for abortion rights, a win fueled by Democrats outregistering Republicans by 9 points since the Dobbs decision was announced, with a staggering 70% of all new registrants being women,” the firm found.

TargetSmart also found that new voter registrations by women have spiked post-Dobbs in multiple states where abortion rights are threatened, notably in Wisconsin and Michigan (the latter will probably see a ballot measure in November to protect abortion rights).

More generally, abortion rights as an issue gives young voters — particularly young women — a reason to vote in an election they might otherwise skip because they saw it as irrelevant to their lives and their most immediate concerns. That could be a big deal in close contests.

The issue landscape could shift to benefit Democrats.

Prior to Dobbs, measurements of issue saliency heading into the midterms invariably showed an electorate fixated on economic issues, crime, and immigration — topics on which Democrats were quite vulnerable. Now, abortion rights are on more voters’ radar. In July, Gallup reported the largest number of poll respondents citing abortion as the most important problem facing the country since the organization started asking that question in 1984. And that was before the momentum for draconian anti-abortion legislation began building among Republican legislators in many states.

Democratic candidates have definitely noticed this shift in the issue landscape, as the New York Times observed last week:

In the roughly 50 days since the Supreme Court’s ruling, Democrats have flooded the airwaves in many of the nation’s most closely watched contests, spending nearly eight times as much as Republicans have on ads talking about abortion — $31.9 million compared with $4.2 million, according to data from AdImpact, a media tracking firm. And in the closest Senate and governors’ contests, Republicans have spent virtually nothing countering the Democratic offensive.

By contrast, in the last midterms four years ago, Democrats spent less than $1 million on ads that mentioned abortion-related issues in the same time period.

Indeed, until very recently, the smartest voices in every Democratic room were advising candidates to ignore “divisive” cultural issues and focus on government economic-benefit proposals. The Dobbs backlash has changed that dramatically.

Democrats could perform better with swing voters.

There aren’t as many swing voters as there used to be, but those who remain tend to be upscale suburban voters who are very likely to turn out in midterms. Their swing to the Democratic Party in 2018 was a key part of the formula that produced a takeover of the House and several key governorships, and enough of them remained in the Democratic column to help Biden win the presidency two years later. It was widely feared that 2022 midterms focusing on economic and fiscal issues would be the ideal magnet for Republicans to bring many of these voters — especially women — back to their ancestral attachments. But abortion rights could alienate even steady Republican voters who favor them, as I noted after the Kansas vote:

There are a lot more pro-choice Republican voters these days than anti-abortion Democratic voters. According to a Pew Research survey last month, when asked whether abortion should be legal or illegal in all or most cases, Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters favored legal abortion by an 80-18 margin, while Republicans and Republican-leaning voters opposed legal abortion by a 60-38 margin. By that measure, it shouldn’t be too surprising if upwards of a third of Kansas voters who regularly vote Republican opposed taking away abortion rights.

This issue could also help Democrats halt the erosion of support they have been experiencing among people of color. In June, Pew found that Black Americans support abortion rights by a 68-27 margin, as did Latinos by a 60-40 margin.

Republicans could lose their historic midterm advantage.

Typically, the midterms are more or less a referendum on the party controlling the White House. This can be deadly for that party at a time when “wrong track” sentiment is particularly high, as it is right now. In the RealClearPolitics polling averages on the direction of the country, 23 percent of Americans say the U.S. is on the “right track,” while 71 percent say it’s on the “wrong track.” That’s terrible for Democrats given their trifecta control of the federal government. But Dobbs has dramatized the conservative Republican hold on the Supreme Court and made Republicans squarely and exclusively responsible for a “wrong track” development that is alarming to a lot of voters. It’s the sort of thing that could change the basic dynamics of the midterms. Given Democrats’ fragile hold over Congress and many statehouses, the big question is how large that shift might be in November.

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How Abortion Transformed Democrats’ Midterm Chances