The Possible Electoral Impact of a SCOTUS Abortion Ruling

December 12, 2021

The Supreme Court's oral arguments in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case last week got political minds wondering whether the abortion issue would make the midterm elections about anything other than what they normally are: a referendum on the incumbent president and his party.

Until now, it looked very likely that the focal point of the election would be on President Biden, the Democratic Congress, and their ambitious—some say transformative—spending agenda. And conventional wisdom is that Democrats stand to lose their five-seat majority in the House and their control of the Senate. National polls released Tuesday by The Wall Street Journal and Wednesday by Monmouth University only reinforced the belief that Democrats were in big trouble. A Wednesday column in The Hill by veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman observed that while many Democratic proposals are quite popular, “[p]opularity and impact are two different dimensions.” Mellman went on to write: “Despite their popularity, relatively few of the economic policies we advocate are perceived by voters as helping them.”

So if the high court affirms the Mississippi law, effectively reversing the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that recognized a woman’s right to an abortion, would that trigger a backlash that could save Democrats? A piece reported by David Siders for Politico matched almost precisely what I picked up Friday morning in email exchanges with a half-dozen veteran pollsters, strategists, and operatives in both parties. After noting the exuberance that some Democrats initially expressed that the election spotlight might shift away from their challenges, Siders wrote that a more sober and nuanced assessment has begun to settle in. ... Privately, several Democratic strategists have suggested the usefulness of any decision on abortion next year will be limited, and some may advise their clients not to focus on abortion rights at all.”

The norm in midterm elections is for a president’s party to be satisfied, complacent, or disappointed, but rarely ecstatic. After all, they got what they wanted in the last election. It is the opposing party’s base that tends to be more motivated, seeking to avenge their loss in the previous cycle. Moreover, the 10 percent of voters who are “pure independents,” a fickle group if there ever was one, often have some degree of buyer’s remorse from the previous election.

What exactly will SCOTUS do? One Democratic pollster who sees a ton of data from all over the country put it this way: “This abortion decision is a wildcard in a climate that is otherwise shaping up very favorably for Republicans. There has always been a credibility issue on these attacks from Democrats—as it often just didn't seem credible when a Democrat said a Republican wanted to ban abortion. Voters felt that was either a mischaracterization, or even if it was true ... they just couldn't imagine abortion being completely/mostly restricted.” The Democrat added, “A decision striking down Roe certainly makes a lot of headlines but in most states I imagine there is a lag between that type of decision and then new restrictions going into effect—and I'd imagine there will be additional legal challenges throughout the country when new laws start to go into effect.”

A Republican pollster also seeing thousands of interviews gathered from coast to coast each month expressed concern, writing in an email, “I think the timing of this couldn’t be any worse. As you know, the voters we’ve lost since 2016 are suburban women + (fewer) suburban men. This is not an issue that will rally them, but instead give them pause.” He then added that much depends on how the decision is framed: “If it’s the Chief Justice Roberts way (not a ban but a narrowing to 3 months), we may come out okay. But I fear some states (and the media) will take it to an outright ban.”

One key Democratic strategist saw a risk in his party seeming to be too focused on abortion to the exclusion of other issues: “I do worry that even if there is unrest toward Republicans on this front, that voters will still primarily be focused on more economic matters—cost of living/wages and whatever effects of COVID we are still seeing that are disrupting life. And if Democrats seem more exercised about an abortion Supreme Court decision than they do about high prices, workers' paychecks not going as far as they used to, businesses struggling to hire/survive ... then that could be a problem for Democrats.”

The view of yet another Republican pollster was that the "most likely outcome of the Supreme Court returning abortion politics to the states, where I think it should have been all along, is to drive red and blue states farther apart. Each state will pass an abortion law consistent with the culture of that state. Most voters are so conflicted about abortion that it's hard to see that issue alone changing the fundamental dynamics of the midterms.”

It is entirely possible that the abortion issue triggers a shift in focus of this election. But it is also possible that it boosts turnout among both bases, mirroring the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2018, creating what I called at the time a “color enhancement event.” That is, blue areas got bluer and red areas redder. Conservative turnout increased, particularly in rural, small-town, and heartland areas, enabling the GOP to hold onto the Senate, while simultaneously amplifying more liberal voting in the suburbs and cities, helping Democrats win a majority in the House.

One Republican operative concluded, “I may be an island on this one, but I really do believe 2022 will be more of a persuasion campaign than we’ve had in a while. It worked in VA and NJ, and there is a lot (on both sides) to work with.”

The article was originally published for the National Journal on December 9, 2021.

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