Thursday, December 8, 2022

Opinion | How abortion and the end of Roe is changing our politics



Two months ago, the Supreme Court gave Republicans a once-in-a-generation victory in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, ending the constitutional right to abortion. Pro-life Republicans rejoiced, and some red states immediately passed new restrictions on the procedure.

The rejoicing might have been premature. Since Dobbs was handed down, nearly every political data point has shown a portion of voters shifting from Republicans and toward Democrats. This is a sea change from earlier in the year, when Republicans seemed to be building momentum for a red wave.

So how much has Dobbs changed the political landscape? We can get into granular detail by looking at horse-race polls, election results and long-running issue surveys.

Horse-race polls: Dobbs gave Democrats a three-point boost

The best way to gauge likely outcomes in midterm elections is to check the generic ballot — a national poll that usually asks voters, “If the election for U.S. Congress were held today, whom would you vote for in the district where you live?”

Here’s the trend, from April to now:

These data tell a clear story.

When the draft opinion of Dobbs leaked in May, voters withheld judgment. They waited to see if the court would follow through on the reported draft; as they waited, Republicans maintained a two-to-three-point lead.

But after the final Dobbs opinion was released on June 24, voters shifted. A wave of new Republican abortion restrictions followed, as did pro-choice counter-protests. By the end of July, the GOP’s lead evaporated.

This shift could soon be seen in surveys of individual races. We don’t have the same level of detail in Senate polling — surveys have been sparse — but in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina, Republican Senate candidates have lost an average of two points since Dobbs. That’s very close to the amount that Republicans lost in the generic ballot over the same period.

Some cautions: Surveys might be consistently underestimating the GOP (as they did in 2016 and 2020) or underrating Democrats (as they did in 2012). But the polls do clearly communicate change — that Democrats are in a more competitive position than they were at the start of the summer.

Special elections: Democratic turnout is supercharged

Republicans might be tempted to ignore the negative trends in the polls following Dobbs’s release, recalling how surveys overestimated Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. But Dobbs appears to be stirring Democratic interest in participating this fall.

Just take a look at congressional special elections in the two months preceding Dobbs — and in the two months after:

The elections before Dobbs — in California’s 22nd and Texas’s 34th — looked like cakewalks for the GOP. Republican turnout was high, and these heavily Latino districts swung to the right.

But after Dobbs, Democrats made huge gains in Lincoln, Neb., and the Omaha suburbs; rural segments of Minnesota; and progressive precincts of New York state. Democrat Pat Ryan’s win in New York’s 19th district was especially painful for the GOP. Republicans nominated a strong candidate, Marc Molinaro, in a seat that Joe Biden had won by only a point in 2020 — but Democratic turnout soared, and the GOP lost that opportunity.

A similar pattern showed up in reliably red Kansas. Abortion was literally on the ballot — in the form of an antiabortion ballot initiative — and Democratic turnout surged.

More cautions: Special elections are few in number; and survey results can be hit-or-miss. They predicted Democrats’ 2018 House takeover correctly, but they overestimated Biden’s victory margin in 2020.

Moreover, pollster John Couvillon has aggregated the post-Dobbs primary election returns overall and found a distinct Republican turnout advantage.

But, taken together, the 2022 special election results signal change from earlier in the year: Democrats are much more likely to turn out now than they appeared before Dobbs was handed down.

Issue polls: The debate has shifted

Maybe most importantly, abortion’s importance as a reason to vote now appears to be a key driver of Democratic participation. Before Dobbs, activists on both sides used the issue to drum up votes (and dollars) from the base.

After Dobbs, a new reality set in.

And Democratic voters are quickly moving to the left on the issue. After Biden won the 2020 election, an increasing number of Democrats said abortion should be legal in “all” rather than “most” circumstances — with Dobbs giving the trend an extra push.

Democratic politicians are aware of these shifts — and in the fall, they’ll likely embrace abortion rights in more vocal, unconditional ways than have been common in modern politics.

And, if the trends from the past two months hold, that strategy might help them in November.

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