Don’t Overstate the Dobbs Factor
Abortion is dangerous for Republicans, but it’s unlikely to be a magic bullet for Democrats
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When it comes to generalizations about American politics in our moment, two observations are close to indisputable. The first is that the country is very evenly divided. (If you’re a Democrat and don’t believe me because of Joe Biden’s seven-million-vote victory in the 2020 popular vote, look at how close Donald Trump came to winning several toss-up states and tying the Electoral College that year; or note how narrow each party’s congressional majorities have been in recent cycles; or glance at how many state legislatures are in Republican hands.)
The second observation is that each party is constantly on the lookout for an issue that will shift public opinion decisively in its own direction, thereby ending the stalemate once and for all and achieving decisive and enduring majority support.
The latest issue Democrats hope will do this for them is abortion.
They have a decent amount of evidence in public opinion surveys to back up such hopes. Roe v. Wade was supported by a sizable majority of Americans. The Dobbs decision overturning it was unpopular. When voters are asked if abortion should be legal in all or most cases or banned in all or most cases, the pro-choice position wins solidly. The number holding the absolute pro-life position (illegal in all cases) is quite small: just 7 percent of Americans and 14 percent of Republicans.
There’s also seemingly solid verification from recent elections that Republicans are being hurt by their position on reproductive rights. In the August 2022 Kansas abortion referendum, the midterm election of last November, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court race earlier this month, the Democrats did better, and the Republicans worse, than expected. This has led leading Democrats to conclude that Florida Governor (and likely Republican presidential candidate) Ron DeSantis just shot himself in the foot by signing a six-week abortion ban in Florida, less than a year after he signed a more moderate 15-week ban.
The truth is that the GOP’s stance on abortion will probably make only a marginal difference in future races, though there are enough close states that even a small shift could make winning the presidency even more difficult for the right than it already is. But even this outcome is far from assured. To see why, we need to dig a little deeper into the polls.
How Strict Is Too Strict?
As pro-life conservative John McCormack pointed out in a tweet last week inspired by Democratic gloating about DeSantis’ supposed self-own in signing a six-week abortion ban, Republicans in Georgia, Ohio, and Iowa have done fine, and even better than fine, in statewide races after signing (or defending in court) bills with similar restrictions:
[Georgia Gov.] Kemp, after signing 6-week limit, won by 8 points in a state Trump lost. Ohio gov DeWine signed a 6-week limit and won by 25 points in a state Trump carried by 8 points. Same story with Iowa gov Kim Reynolds, who won by 19 in a state Trump won by 8.
What explains these results? For one thing, polls often don’t specify precisely what voters mean when they say abortion should be allowed (or restricted) “in most cases.” Do they mean abortions should be permitted through 15 weeks? Or is “most cases” compatible with a six-week ban? An absolute ban, especially one with no exceptions for rape, incest, or life of the mother, would be very unpopular in most states. But a six-week ban with exceptions, like the one DeSantis signed last week, is quite a bit more lenient than that, even if it’s quite draconian compared with the Roe-era status quo.
Such considerations likely played an important role in elections in Kansas and Wisconsin over the past year that delivered encouraging results for pro-choice Democrats. In the former, the Democratic side was effective at convincing voters that if the referendum passed and a constitutional amendment declared there was no right to abortion in the state, the conservative legislature would have banned the procedure outright. That was enough of a threat to galvanize pro-choice voters. Likewise, in Wisconsin, voters knew that if Judge Janet Protasiewicz lost her race for the state Supreme Court, it was likely that an 1849 law that made nearly all abortions a felony would be allowed to stand post-Dobbs.
How Many Voters Care? And How Much?
But even more decisive than precisely where voters come down on the question of abortion restrictions is how many of those voters care about the issue, and how intensely. It’s one thing for a respondent to answer questions about abortion when they are posed by a pollster. It’s quite another for a voter to weigh that issue along with many others when deciding how to vote on Election Day.
One in four Americans (25 percent) say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on abortion, compared with a slim majority of Americans (52 percent) who say a candidate’s position on abortion is just one of many important factors and 20 percent who do not see abortion as a major issue when voting.
That adds up to 72 percent of Americans not caring enough about the issue of abortion for it to make a decisive difference in their voting decision.
Then there’s the question of how the roughly 25 percent who are highly committed voters on the issue are distributed throughout the electorate. And there we find remarkable balance. From the PRRI poll write-up: “Among Americans who say that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, 26 percent say they will only vote for candidates who share their views on abortion.” Meanwhile, “25 percent of Americans who say that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases say they will only vote for candidates who share their views on abortion.” Now, the first, broadly pro-choice group is larger than the second, broadly pro-life group, so there are probably somewhat more single-issue abortion voters on the pro-choice side than there are on the pro-life side. But still, the proportional symmetry is striking.
And it is equally present when we look at the intensity of views about abortion among independent voters, 21 percent of whom will only vote for candidates who are pro-choice, while 19 percent will only vote for candidates who are pro-life. Once again, that’s essentially a proportional tie.