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Mellman: Abortion impact on elections

Celina Washburn protests outside the Arizona Capitol with a "Bans off our bodies" sign and a shirt that adds "Our abortions"
Associated Press-Matt York, File
Celina Washburn protests outside the Arizona Capitol to voice her dissent with an abortion ruling, Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, in Phoenix. An Arizona judge ruled the state can enforce a near-total ban on abortions that has been blocked for nearly 50 years. The law was first enacted decades before Arizona became a state in 1912.

Issues are the accepted language of political campaigning. But rarely, if ever, has a single issue so transformed the political landscape in the weeks before an election as abortion seems to have done this year.  

In a country that generally supports abortion rights but has long been falsely confident that those rights faced no threat, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning Roe v. Wade has visibly altered the political dynamic across the country.  

As I have argued here previously, improving fundamentals — the economy, presidential approval, etc. — has contributed to Democrats’ now stronger standing. But the data make it hard to argue against the court’s decision also playing a key role.  

FiveThirtyEight’s compilation of the generic House vote had Republicans consistently ahead starting in November of 2021. The Dobbs decision was issued eight months later, on June 24, and within days the GOP margin began shrinking. By the beginning of August, Democrats had gained the lead, which they maintain. The net shift — about 4 points.   

Special elections are another indicator of how each party is faring. In specials since Joe Biden became president but before Dobbs, Republicans did about 2 points better than one would have expected given the partisan disposition of those jurisdictions. In specials this year but before Dobbs, the GOP did nearly 6 points better, on average.   

But in special elections since the court overturned Roe v. Wade, Democrats have done an average of 9 points better than expected and exceeded their partisan base in every single contest. 

Correlation, as they say, does not imply causation. And these changes were probably not the result of Dobbs alone. But even before the decision was issued, most voters said they opposed overturning Roe. On average, 63 percent told Fox News pollsters over recent years that they wanted to let Roe v. Wade “stand,” while only 28 percent believed “the Supreme Court should overturn Roe vs. Wade.”   

It seems to have taken a while for voters to process what was going on.  

About three weeks after the decision was announced, conservative commentator Rich Lowry took to Politico magazine to chortle, “The historic Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which Democrats have been hoping will stun voters into supporting them in what otherwise would be a big GOP year, hasn’t had much discernible political effect.”  

Lowry cited polls showing relatively few people cared about abortion as an electoral issue.   

That’s been the case for many years for one simple reason: Voters saw no threat to the constitutional right to abortion. As recently as last year, just 35 percent thought it was likely Roe would be overturned. Pre-Trump, that number was even lower.   

Beginning June 24, that calculation was upended. Overturning Roe was not just a probability but a certainty.   

The new reality had not totally taken hold by the time Lowry wrote. By August it was beginning to. Pew Research Center polling showed a 13-point increase in the share of voters saying the issue would be very important to their vote between March and August.   

Over time, people talk to each other about issues that matter. They tune in and out of news coverage, but there is enough on this topic to bring it to the attention of more voters.   

And if you didn’t hear from a friend or catch a news item about it, if you live in a swing state or district, you’re seeing ads about it.  

An Associated Press analysis released last week found “Democrats have already invested more than an estimated $124 million this year in television advertising referencing abortion. That’s more than twice as much money as the Democrats’ next top issue…and almost 20 times more than Democrats spent on abortion-related ads in the 2018 midterms.” 

 CBS just estimated that 81 percent of voters are hearing Democrats talk about protecting abortion rights.  

We won’t know for certain until November, but at this point there is little question the Supreme Court’s radical decision overturning 50 years of precedent has helped resuscitate Democrats. Republicans have only themselves and the Court’s conservative majority to blame.   

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.    

Tags 2022 midterm elections abortion rights Democrats Rich Lowry Roe v. Wade

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