America and the Abortion Debate

Over the last fifty years, perhaps no single issue in American politics has been as hotly debated as abortion. Since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which determined that a woman’s right to an abortion was constitutionally protected, the issue has become a flashpoint subject to increasing debate and, as partisanship accelerates, increasing polarization. Many modern conservatives believe the case was wrongly decided, that the constitution guarantees no such right, and that the decision must be overturned, while moderates and liberals tend to favor keeping the decision in place.

In a leaked draft of a Supreme Court majority opinion regarding Dobbs v. Jackson, the Court made it clear that it was willing to overturn Roe v. Wade, deeming it wrongly decided. The electorate generally tends to favor keeping abortion access in place, however, and support for keeping abortion legal in most (or all) cases remains high across the country. Because of this, there have been several arguments made regarding the potential backlash the GOP may face in the event of Roe v. Wade’s overturning. However, there is significant variance by state and by demographic, and so in assessing any possible electoral effect of the Dobbs ruling, a more granular view is necessary.

Public opinion on abortion rights is a very difficult thing to measure, and it should be noted that different levels of restrictions on abortion draw very different levels of support from the electorate. However, for the purposes of this analysis, we will try to offer a more generalized level of analysis that looks simply at whether voters support abortion in all or most cases, which is a common standard applied in gauging stances on this issue.

We can use an aggregate of surveys from different sources to help us estimate a state-level picture of American opinions on abortion access. Below, we display a composite average for abortion support, with estimates from the 2020 Associated Press Votecast, the Cooperative Election Study, and the New York Times used as data sources.

Banning abortion is extremely unpopular among voters. Even in the Republican Party, where the reversal of Roe v. Wade has been a chief policy priority, 35% of their voters favor keeping abortion legal in most or all cases, as per the Pew Research Center. The same survey also found that Americans are overwhelmingly pro-choice, with 59% favoring keeping abortion mostly legal and 39% in favor of making it mostly illegal.

It is important to note that Republicans have far more pro-choice voters than Democrats have pro-life ones. A visual comparison contrasting estimated levels of support for abortion to partisan margins in the 2020 election makes this even clearer; 47 of 50 states have a higher share of pro-choice voters than of Biden voters, including every single one of the 25 Trump-won states except Louisiana and every 2022 Senate battleground state.

The data indicates that there are significantly more pro-choice Republicans than there are pro-life Democrats; AP estimated that in Arizona, while 34% of pro-choice voters backed Trump, only 17% of pro-life voters backed Biden. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, while 28% of pro-choice voters backed Trump, only 19% of pro-life voters voted for Biden. Polling from Pew provides further support of this point; in a 2019 survey, 12% of Republicans had said they agree with Democrats rather than the GOP on abortion, while just 7% of Democrats said the reverse.

This asymmetry shows up strongly in many states outside the Deep South (which is significantly more pro-life than the rest of the nation thanks to its higher levels of religiosity). In particular, states like Michigan, Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arizona are far more secular, and so significant shares of Republicans support access to abortion. This is why candidates like Adam Laxalt (Nevada) and Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) stressed to voters that abortions would still be obtainable even after the Supreme Court ruling — blanket bans are, on the whole, broadly unpopular. However, with Republican gubernatorial candidates in many of these states advocating for exactly this, Democrats are hoping that messaging on this issue helps them buck what is increasingly looking like a Republican-leaning election cycle.

Midterm elections are also about turnout, and polling from HIT Strategies (a Democratic firm) suggests that a strike-down of Roe v. Wade makes key Democratic constituencies far more motivated to vote, with 71% of Black voters saying it makes them more likely to cast a ballot. Polling from NBC News backs this up, with the share of Democrats motivated to vote in the midterm elections spiking from 50% to 61% in the wake of the Dobbs opinion leak. And a recent Monmouth survey shows that a much greater share of the electorate lists abortion as a core issue in this cycle as compared to the previous midterm. If this held, it would be likely a boon towards swing-state Democrats heading into a difficult election cycle.

It may also be the case that abortion policy could impact state-level races far more than federal ones. With Joe Biden in the White House, federal policy on abortion is virtually guaranteed to stay unchanged, but the electorates in heavily pro-choice states, particularly in ones that have trigger laws or unenforced abortion bans, could punish gubernatorial candidates more for stances supporting these bans, as governors are directly responsible for the enforcement and enactment of state-level policy. This is, in fact, in line with the theory floated by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and it would not be a surprise if this were the case come November.

It is important to note, however, that there also exists the possibility of the issue’s salience being washed out by economic discontent. With Biden’s approvals currently at an all-time low, Republicans maintain large leads on other core issues like the economy, which have historically been signals of midterm success. A recession might then result in a red wave that could drown out voter dissatisfaction with the GOP on abortion-related stances.

It is ultimately difficult to project the impact of what is, as of the time of this writing, still a hypothetical. The Supreme Court has not overturned Roe v. Wade as of yet, and voters have not seen a significant shift in abortion policy in most states. But if this issue is to have salience in the midterm elections, it is far more likely to show up in polling taken after the ruling is actually issued, and it is more likely than not to be of greater significance in competitive elections where one candidate is out of step with the state’s view.

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