Issue 1 and a Proxy War in Ohio

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The post-Dobbs era has seen a wave of attempts from legislatures to codify a preferred position on abortion into law, depending on the partisanship of the state legislature. In many states, these attempts have taken the form of ballot measures and referendums, where citizens vote directly on these matters.

In the case of Ohio, a ballot measure to protect and codify abortion rights is scheduled for this November, and it is broadly expected to clear 50%. Under current law, this would allow the measure to pass, as Ohio currently only requires a majority vote for a ballot initiative to succeed. However, in anticipation of this, Ohio Republicans and conservative-aligned groups scheduled another referendum for today, August 8th, whose chief purpose would be to immediately raise the threshold for successful referendums to 60% and change the signature-gathering qualification requirements for future referendums, which would make them significantly harder to place on the ballot. This pivotal election is upon us.

This ballot measure is called Issue 1, and it has become a proxy war for abortion rights and partisan politics in Ohio. Supporters of Issue 1 like Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose have openly said that the measure is about keeping abortion rights from being enshrined into the state constitution, while Democratic and centrist Republican officials like Maureen O’Connor have opposed it, claiming that the referendum’s passing would be tantamount to establishing “minority rule” in Ohio by making future referendums near-impossible to schedule or pass, expanding the influence of a Republican legislative supermajority.

Polling paints a mixed picture regarding the odds of this referendum. While a July Suffolk University poll had “No” leading by a jaw-dropping 57-26 split, a Scripps News/YouGov poll found “Yes” leading 38-37, while an Ohio Northern University poll saw “Yes” leading 42-41. The delta between the polls may seem surprising at first, but there may be an underlying explanation for it.

Political science research consistently shows that the “yes” side overperforms in referendum polling and underperforms at the ballot box, because of a mixture of acquiescence bias and status quo bias. More specifically, survey respondents have a slight inclination towards answering “yes” to poll questions, while voters at the ballot box have a slight inbuilt bias towards preserving the status quo and voting “no” to change. Acquiescence bias, in particular, is especially magnified in online surveys, which may be why there is such a big delta between the Suffolk poll and the others — both Scripps and Ohio Northern University conducted their poll online, whereas Suffolk used live interviews. To better understand the likely outcomes, then, it may behoove us to turn our attention to other referendums and state-level elections in similar Midwestern states.

Other elections in both Michigan and Wisconsin suggest that the “No” side is likely to garner significant Republican support as well. In Michigan, Proposal 3, which enshrined abortion rights into the state constitution, passed by 13 points in November 2022. The same ballot saw Democrats win the congressional vote by just 2 points, and even Gretchen Whitmer’s landslide was only 10 points.

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, the conservative justice Dan Kelly lost to Janet Protasiewicz by 11 in an April 2023 state Supreme Court election widely treated as a referendum on abortion rights in the state. This margin came as a surprise to many, given that Wisconsin voted for Biden by 1 and Evers by 3, but it further reinforced the notion that abortion rights advocates benefit from “crossover” support in state-level matters in secular, midwestern states.

Pre-Dobbs surveys also indicated that the Ohio electorate generally backed protections for abortion rights, with our survey aggregator suggesting a +6 split in favor of abortion rights. This serves as another point in favor of the theory that many Obama-Trump voters are more secular and socially liberal on certain matters than their recent presidential votes might suggest.

Advertising data also suggests that the “No” side is better poised for victory, with opponents of the ballot measure outspending the “Yes” side by $3 million during the summer, according to AdImpact data reported by PBS. In an off-cycle election held at an unusual time, such an advantage could prove decisive in defeating the amendment. Lastly, similar ballot measures designed to make referendums harder to bring to a vote have also come up short in other states in recent years.

The vote today will serve to be somewhat instructive of the November referendum on abortion rights — a large victory for the “No” side would indicate that codification for abortion rights is more likely than not to gain majority support in a few months. To us, it seems that Issue 1 faces an uphill climb at the ballot box tonight, and we would be surprised to see it succeed. 

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