The leak on Monday night of a draft ruling showing the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade led to a flood of 'hot takes' on Twitter and the social media space about its impact on the upcoming midterm elections.
Many of those opinions were given with an unwarranted degree of certainty. The reality is that right now we really don’t how this could impact 2022.
Here's what we do know:
Opinions about abortion rights are both settled and fluid.
Over the last 25 to 47 years, surveys by Pew and Gallup have consistently found that a majority Americans support keeping abortion legal in all or most cases. The most recent Pew survey found that 59 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, virtually unchanged from 1995 when 60 percent of Americans agreed with that statement. The most recent Gallup poll finds that 80 percent believe abortion should be legal under any or "certain circumstances." That too isn't much different from opinions from 1975 when 75 percent of Americans felt that way.
But, scratch beneath the surface, and that's where things get more fluid — and complicated. When Gallup gave respondents four choices —- legal under any, legal under most, legal in only a few cases, illegal in all cases — Americans are much less united on the issue of legal abortion. In 2021, 45 percent chose legal under any/most, while 52 percent chose legal only in a few circumstances/illegal in all. Those opinions have been relatively consistent over the last 30 years as well. In 1994, for example, 43 percent agreed abortion should be legal in any/most situations, while 51 percent wanted to see abortion limited to only a few circumstances or illegal.
Of course, what "certain circumstances" means is hard to know. One person's red line is likely to be different from another's. This is likely where the fight over abortion will center in the upcoming election. Early polling suggests that some of the current restrictions being put into place or debated in many states, are unpopular. Just 41 percent of voters in a recent Gallup poll supported a ban on abortion after 18 weeks, while 56 percent opposed it.
Bottom line: Few want abortion overturned, and few want abortion without any restrictions. The rest are somewhere in the middle. That means the candidates who can position themselves in the vast middle are the most likely to be successful.
States will be the battleground for the issue of abortion.
If Roe is indeed overturned, the states will ultimately determine the future of abortion in America. That means gubernatorial, legislative and attorneys general races around the country, but especially in swing states, become ground zero. This is especially true in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.
This is an issue that can divide Democrats and Republicans.
A poll taken in 11 battleground states last fall for EMILY's List, Planned Parenthood and American Bridge found that restricting abortion rights isn't only "particularly effective among mobilization targets (i.e., voters would vote for a Democrat for senator or governor in 2022 but are not certain that they will vote)," but, they note in their survey memo, "it moves a plurality of voters in this survey who currently intend to vote for a Republican candidate."
Independent polling by Pew suggests that this GOP divide is real. While 78 percent of conservative Republicans say that abortion should be illegal in all/most circumstances, just 39 percent of moderate to liberal Republicans feel similarly. Meanwhile, Democrats across the ideological spectrum are united in the belief that abortion should be legal in all/most circumstances (89 percent liberal to 72 percent conservative/moderate).
But, it's not just Republicans who could see this issue dividing their partisans. Overnight and this morning, Democrats across the board — both those in the Senate and those running for the Senate (like Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman), have called on the Senate to eliminate the filibuster so that Roe v. Wade can be codified into federal law.
But, as we saw with the voting rights issue, at least two Democrats have voiced consistent opposition to overturning the filibuster. And, as Sophia Cai of Axios noted, one of those two Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin, "joined Republicans in blocking the Women's Health Protection Act last month and remains committed to protecting the filibuster."
Democrats see the opportunity for this issue to motivate their base and swing voters, but another round of fighting over the filibuster will only serve to depress/divide Democrats.
How salient an issue will this be in 2022?
Americans are pretty stressed right now. Rising costs of living on everything from groceries to gas to rent is a top concern for Americans across the political spectrum. A recent CNBC poll found that 47 percent believe the economy is in poor shape, the highest level of pessimism on that question in 10 years.
More ominously for Democrats is the fact that a majority of Americans think that President Biden is doing a poor job handling the economy. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found Republicans with a 14-point advantage on the issue of dealing with the economy.
Can abortion dislodge the economy as a top issue this fall?
That, of course, is the million-dollar question.
Historically, according to 20 years of Gallup polling, about 25 percent of Americans see the issue of abortion as critical to their vote choice, another 25 percent think it's "not a major issue," while the other 50 percent see it as "one of many important factors" determining their vote choice.
One place to look for the impact of big changes to abortion law would be a state like Texas, which put into place legislation that bans abortion after 6 weeks. But, a Texas Lyceum survey from March found that just 5 percent of Texans believe that abortion is "the most important issue facing the state of Texas" compared to 20 percent who see border/immigration as a top issue and 26 percent who identified inflation, the economy and/or rising gas and energy costs as their top concern.
Of course, Texas is a much redder state than Georgia or Arizona or Wisconsin (where key Senate and gubernatorial contests are taking place). And, the impact of this laws takes on new significance if Roe is indeed overturned.
But, what about a blue state, like Virginia. In the 2021 gubernatorial contest, Democrat Terry McAuliffe spent more than $2 million on ads like this one accusing his GOP opponent, Glenn Youngkin of wanting to ban abortion and defund Planned Parenthood. Even so, that was less than half the amount that the McAuliffe campaign on ads trying to link Youngkin with Donald Trump. This suggests that the abortion issue, even in a state as blue as this one, wasn’t moving the needle for the voters the McAuliffe campaign was targeting. Exit polls in that race found that Youngkin did better among the 54 percent of Virginia voters who fall in the middle of the spectrum on the issue of abortion. Youngkin took 37 percent of the vote among those who want abortion to be “legal in most cases,” while McAuliffe took just 12 percent of the vote among those who want abortion to be “illegal in most cases.”
Bottom Line: We are in the very early stages of what could be the first major change to abortion laws in 50 years. As such, we need to watch the above benchmarks like salience and enthusiasm about the issue very closely. And, given that these battles will take place at the state level, we'll also need to get more state by state data to make any projections on the impact it could have on individual statewide races.