What we know (and don’t know) about how abortion affected the midterms

Before the midterms, pollsters and strategists and — yes, journalists — were obsessed with voters’ top issues. In poll after poll, including NPR polls, voters said inflation was the top issue. Still, many people don’t vote on a single issue, and that makes it hard to know just how much abortion impacted the midterm elections.

This year’s midterm elections were certainly unusual — when the president’s approval rating falls below 50 percent (like President Biden’s), her party loses an average of 43 House seats in the midterm elections. This year, Democrat losses could be in the single digits. As a result, less than six months after the Supreme Court was overthrown Roe v. calfboth sides are working to find out how big the role of abortion was in the midterms.

Polls may not be able to predict what drives decision making

First things first – the usefulness of polls to tell exactly how many people included abortion in their vote is extremely limited. It’s true that polls have consistently shown that Democrats are more interested in the issue than Republicans this year, which makes sense after the Dobbs decision was overthrown roe. It is also true that there were voters who said the issue of abortion got them to vote.

But 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 issues are on your mind?’ They say, “Inflation, economy, crime, supply chain. That’s what they would say upstairs,” Longwell said.

But then the abortion came later: “When you go to vote, it’s like, ‘Who do you want to vote for? [Arizona Democratic Senate candidate] Markus Kelly or [Republican] Blake Masters?” People would say, ‘Oh, I’m not voting for Blake Masters. His position on abortion is crazy.” And that theme was repeated 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 a priority, but it was a prominent data point that supported a narrative that some Republicans were going too extreme. That’s how Democratic strategist Tom Bonier sees it.

“My general theory on this is this Dobbs “We really focused and crystallized on these other issues that weren’t really resonating,” he said. not really a dent in the numbers. And then Dobbs happens. And I think it made that argument of 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 studies) on how people voted. However, voter registration data appears to show that the roe Motivated women fall down immediately.

“You saw a pretty significant increase in the gender gap almost everywhere in the two to four weeks after Dobbs,” Bonier said. “And then we saw an increase, but not as pronounced after that.”

However, this leaves a few questions unanswered. one is the Women were motivated. Exit polls generally suggest that young women have broken hard for the Democrats. On the other hand, an AARP post-election poll also showed that women over 65 made a significant switch to Democrats between July and November.

There is also the question of how much the topic motivates men – or not. Many surveys show that women and men hardly differ in their opinions on abortion. Data from this election could add new nuance to this data, revealing whether the issue motivates women to vote more than men, or whether it simply took longer to motivate men.

Abortion rights win big on ballot measures

A second insight: pro-choice politics has developed well in isolation. Five statewide ballot measures all backed abortion rights, even in red states like Kentucky and Montana. This comes on top of an August victory for abortion rights supporters in a Kansas ballot.

And yet, in some of these places, pro-life candidates have also prevailed. As Democratic strategist Rachel Bitecofer puts it, “There are millions of people who voted for a referendum on codification roe or whatever and then went and voted for conservative pro-life Republican candidates.”

In addition, many politicians who were known to support abortion restrictions won easily — for example, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Why is that? Bitecofer believes it is about ineffective communication by abortion rights advocates.

“You want to make sure people understand that this man is the guy signing the law to steal your rights,” she said.

But she added that the problem so far has been severing voters’ ties to party identity.

“People like heuristics. They like something that tells them what to do without mental investment. And that’s why the party label is so incredibly powerful,” Bitecofer said.

Marjorie Dannenfelser is President of SBA Pro Life America, which campaigns against abortion rights. Conversely, she tends to think so expenditure on the electoral measures would have been key to helping abortion rights supporters prevail. She also sees victories by the likes of Abbott and DeSantis as proof of her political power.

“The only thing you have on the pro-life side of an election, and what we’ve always had, is the candidate — a human representation of the argument on the debate stage,” she said. “The reason governors who have been ambitious for their lives win well is because they have articulated their position. You have the loutish pulpit of governors.”

Longwell of the Republican Accountability Project says many voters are also simply concerned about the importance of abortion.

“In Texas, people generally like the work that Abbott does, right? They thought he did a good job with COVID and culturally they feel like they’re with him more than they’re not with him,” she said. “And so people will tolerate getting out of step [with him] about something like abortion, especially if it’s not a high priority issue for them.”

So which messages work?

Another insight — one that’s harder to quantify — is what messaging strategy worked and how to move forward with this problem. For Dannenfelser it is clear that the Republicans have failed and the Democrats have found a strategy for success.

“They ended with a position that we Republicans must refer to abortion bans in general and not go into the specifics of what a Republican or a pro-life candidate is for,” she said.

Several Democratic strategists agree that staying away from pregnancy limits has been wise, though they often don’t see it as portraying Republicans as being overly extreme in the way Republicans do.

“I think it was not only wise but right of them to say that there is no line, there is no such thing as a countdown clock where you go from being a fully autonomous human being to being the property of the state.” said Analilia Mejia, co-director of the progressive Center for Popular Democracy.

This leaves open the question of what the parties see as their best paths for the future. For Republican pollster Whit Ayres, his party must abandon the toughest abortion measures.

“We have a number of laws passed by Republican legislatures that are far removed from the mainstream and don’t have exceptions, for things like rape or incest,” he told a by-election committee at the Roper Center for Public Opinion. “That’s the definition of outside of the mainstream.”

The question is what do Republicans do with this information – what do they see as a winnable mainstream position? In the midterms, many Republican candidates avoided the issue of abortion. For Dannenfelser that was a mistake.

“One thing you can’t do is expect to be a successful Republican candidate to say, ‘It’s a matter of states, and I don’t expect to ever promote or encourage 15-week federal or heart attack protection sign it,” she said.

Rebecca Katz, senior adviser to John Fetterman’s Senate campaign, agrees that her party must not just send messages, but act — in this case, to pass abortion rights legislation.

“I don’t think people should just high five because we won a cycle with such devastating effects,” she said. “There is much to do.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



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