Everyone has their own take on what impact a reversal of Roe v. Wade will have on November’s midterm elections. Here’s mine: To the extent that overturning the 49-year old decision benefits Democrats at all, it won’t be nearly enough to make up for the substantial headwinds they were already facing. In short, it will help out less than they hope and far less than they need.
Why would it not have quite the impact that Democrats pray it will have—and many in the media seem convinced it will have?
First, public opinion is considerably more nuanced than many seem to think. Obviously, the precise wording of questions asked is important, so it is good to look at more than one set of results.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in late April indicated that 26 percent felt that abortion should be legal in all cases and another 33 percent felt it should be legal in most cases—for a total of 59 percent who support abortion rights on some level. On the other side are the 21 percent who felt it should be illegal in most cases and the 16 percent who felt it should be illegal in all cases, bringing the antiabortion total to 37 percent. While that is certainly tilted toward abortion rights, note that 54 percent had non-absolutist views, neither committed entirely to the abortion-rights camp or the antiabortion side.
In the most recent Fox News poll conducted last week, 1,033 registered voters nationwide were given four choices of what came closest to their view on the abortion issue. Twenty-seven percent selected “Abortion should always be legal.” Another 17 percent thought abortion “should be legal most of the time.” On the other side, 43 percent chose the option that abortion "should always be illegal except under certain circumstances, such as rape, incest or to save the life of the mother,” and 11 percent thought the procedure “should always be illegal.”
When CNN asked a national sample of adults what impact a reversal of Roe v. Wade would have “in the area where you live,” 22 percent said that abortion “would likely be banned completely,” and another 30 percent thought abortions “would likely become harder to get but not completely banned.” Twenty-five percent said that abortion “would likely not become any harder to get,” while 23 percent were “not sure how the availability of abortions would be affected.
As CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta and polling and analytics editor Ariel Edwards-Levy wrote, “comparing the results of the new poll to one conducted immediately before the revelation of the draft opinion, the impact on the political landscape heading into the 2022 midterms appears fairly muted.”
They noted: “The share of registered voters who say they are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting this fall rose 6 points between the first survey and the second, but that increase is about even across party lines. Among Democrats, 43% now say they are extremely or very enthusiastic, up 7 points. Among Republicans, it's 56%, up 9 points. And voters who say overturning Roe would make them 'happy' are nearly twice as enthusiastic about voting this fall as those who say such a ruling would leave them 'angry' (38% extremely enthusiastic among those happy, 20% among those angry).”
Second, consider what a reversal would and would not do. Overturning Roe would not prohibit or even make more restrictive the accessibility of abortion in all states, but instead would kick it back to each of the states to set their own laws. According to the Guttmacher Institute, considered a definitive source on information about abortion, 22 states are all but certain to ban abortion, and another four are likely to do so. Those states represent nearly half of the U.S. population. Yet those states are generally the same ones that already substantially restrict the procedure, so less will change nationwide than one might imagine.
Another consideration is timing. The Nov. 8 election is 183 days from now, a very long time in American politics. When dramatic events occur in politics, it is human nature to assume that their significance will endure through the election. In reality, such events tend to dwindle in importance.
Finally, this election will not be held in a vacuum. Other issues—the direction of the economy, the situation along the U.S.-Mexico border, the coronavirus pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and climate change—will compete for voters’ attentions and concerns, to say nothing of any October surprises that may roll down the pike.
Bottom line: The political system will have plenty of time to process the developments surrounding Roe, leaving its impact falling short of expectations.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on May 12, 2022.
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