It's clear that the Supreme Court's June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health decision had a significant impact on the midterms. But with whom, why and how has been a subject of speculation, hot takes and less-than-accurate exit poll data. However, over the last couple of weeks, I've been talking with strategists, both Democratic and Republican, who have conducted deep dives on the role the issue played in 2022 and how it could play out in 2024.
For much of the fall, there was a rolling debate as to whether rising costs and inflation or abortion would be more salient in the upcoming midterm election. By early November, it looked as if the economic concerns would win out.
In the end, both issues mattered to voters, but abortion mattered most to the kinds of swing voters who Republicans should have been able to win over, given President Biden's low approval ratings and the real-life squeeze rising prices were having on voters.
In post-election surveys and focus groups, the GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies (POS), in collaboration with Arizona-based Horizon Strategies, found that swing independent women were not only turned off by the GOP position on abortion, but didn't see the Republican Party as stronger on the economy either.
Last cycle, Republican candidates and their allies had one overarching message: Biden and the Democrats in Congress were responsible for the record-high inflation gripping the country. And yet, post-election surveys by POS found that swing independent women didn't think Republican candidates had better ideas to help the economy than Democrats did. Only 17 percent of swing independent women chose Republicans versus 15 percent who chose Democrats.
On the abortion issue, however, these voters saw a clear distinction between the two parties. Among Republican swing women who disapproved of the Dobbs decision, a majority — 64 percent — still voted for a Republican candidate. But, among the swing independent women who disapproved of the Dobbs decision, 42 percent voted for the Democrat and just 22 percent for the Republican candidate.
In a recent interview for our new podcast "The Odd Years," Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg told me that "the gender gap with independents [was] huge" in 2022 not because these voters didn't prioritize inflation but because "being scared about what was gonna happen to the country for the folks who voted Democratic mattered more than inflation."
Overall, said Greenberg, "I think the existential threat of Republicans to Democrats as it was presented in Dobbs, but it wasn't just Dobbs, drove turnout, drove voting Democratic, drove particularly independent women voting."
Another GOP pollster I spoke with was frustrated with Republicans' failure to offer a clear and convincing case to voters on the economy. "Most Republicans," said this person, "stopped at the definition of the problem. But voters wanted to know what you were going to do" to help them. Another Republican strategist told me that "the economy is a tough issue for voters to really understand generally and they don't trust politicians to care enough about them or understand their struggles to fix it. We [Republican candidates] did not help ourselves."
Post-election polling by the progressive survey group Navigator Research found that voters who "somewhat disapproved" of President Biden's handling of the economy saw abortion as a more salient issue in their vote than the economy. The Navigator survey found that while the overall electorate picked inflation as the top issue (45 percent), with abortion and jobs tied for second place at 30 percent, among those who "somewhat disapproved" of Biden's economic aptitude, abortion was their top issue at 41 percent, with inflation a close second at 37 percent. In other words, inflation was 15 points more important than abortion for the overall electorate, while for 'somewhat disapprovers', abortion was four points more important than inflation.
Importantly, these "somewhat disapprovers" were a pretty-Democratic leaning group. Bryan Bennett, who conducted the polling for Navigator, found that they "pretty overwhelmingly voted for Biden in 2020 and had a more Democratic-leaning profile." But it's fair to wonder whether these voters, who were feeling 'blah' about the economy, may have stayed home were it not for the motivational pull of the Dobbs decision.
Joey Teitelbaum, vice president of research at the Democratic polling firm GSG, argues that Republicans' underwhelming performance in 2022 was driven more by the rollback of abortion rights than a lack of a compelling economic argument. "Voters, on net, instinctively trust the Republican Party to handle the economy more than the Democratic Party," Teitelbaum told me. "But it's more of a gut feeling. Of course, gut feelings only take you part of the way. When it comes to what they heard, Republican candidates offered a fairly clear vision in 2022. Their challenge is Americans oppose their vision. The voters who were stressed about inflation did not want a far-right state rolling back abortion rights or eliminating benefits they rely on (or using our trans kids as pawns, for that matter)."
Another key issue that both Democratic and Republican sources agreed on was that Democrats effectively made the debate on abortion about "values," not the medical procedure itself. As one Democrat remarked to me after the election, "abortion wasn't the issue as much as Dobbs was the issue." In their post-election analysis, POS and Horizon found that "[f]or many women, the issue was about much more than abortion. It was about how we [Republicans] view and respect women in America. This sentiment is deeply felt and highly nuanced."
A post-election survey presentation by a Democratic pollster noted that while many voters "are concerned about access itself, many more are concerned with the ability of government and politicians to interfere with freedoms, rights, and personal decisions." For example, by a more than two-to-one margin (38 percent to 16 percent) voters in this post-election survey said they were more concerned that a GOP candidate "wanted to give politicians like himself the power to make decisions about our bodies and lives," than they were worried about whether that candidate in office would "further restrict actual access to abortion."
Finally, and not surprisingly, the type of candidates Republicans nominated was a significant factor. Republicans who had advocated an "all or nothing" approach in the past were now more vulnerable to charges of extremism by the Democrats. Even the term "pro-life" was interpreted by many women as meaning "no exceptions" said the POS/Horizon survey.
So, what does this tell us about the impact abortion will have in 2024? Strategists I spoke with agreed that there are a lot of unknowns going forward. One Democratic strategist who was deeply involved in this issue last year warned that Democrats should not take their success in 2022 to "mean that abortion messaging will always be a ticket to victory."
By 2024, states will have passed abortion-related laws, ballot initiatives will be readied for a vote, and state supreme courts will have ruled on different aspects of access to abortion, including whether or not an FDA-approved abortion medication will continue to be available. Turnout will also be higher than in a midterm year.
But how any of these will impact the general election are difficult to predict. For example, one Democratic strategist involved in last summer's abortion initiative in Kansas said that a main motivation for younger, less-reliable voters to turn out and vote against the proposed state constitutional amendment to ban abortion in the state was the ability for them to vote directly on the issue. As such, getting these same voters to show up when abortion isn't literally on the ballot may be more challenging.
Republicans I spoke with also agreed that their candidates can't afford to put their heads in the sand, or pretend this issue is going to go away next cycle. Republican candidates, they said, "ignore it to their detriment." On paper, the easiest thing for Republicans to fix would be to nominate candidates who take less extreme positions on this issue. In reality, of course, these candidates have to make it through primaries where they can't afford to be seen as "squishy" on this issue. But tone matters a lot too. There were plenty of "pro-life" Republicans who won in 2022, in part because their demeanor and disposition made it harder for "extremism" attacks to stick.
When I asked a GOP strategist if they thought the abortion issue would remain relevant in 2024, they chortled. Roe v. Wade had a significant impact on politics for 50 years, they said. Why would we think that two years after Dobbs, this issue will no longer be relevant?
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