It’s Abortion, Stupid: How Dobbs May Have Cost Republicans the Midterms

If this year’s midterms buck historical trends and the Democrats don’t suffer significant losses in Congress, Dobbs is the reason why.

Abortion rights activists at the Monroe County Courthouse in Bloomington, Ind., during a protest vigil a few hours before a near-total abortion ban was set to take effect. On Thursday, Sept. 22, an Indiana circuit court temporarily blocked the ban, restoring abortion access in the state. (Jeremy Hogan / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared in Ms.’s Fall 2022 issue. Join the Ms. community today and get the issue delivered straight to your mailbox.

When the ultraconservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court took away the fundamental right of American women to control their own fertility, the justices surely did not anticipate the wave of outrage they would unleash. Or perhaps they didn’t care.

Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the immediate relegation of U.S. women to second-class status, some Republicans in politics—including those on the Supreme Court—have seemed unhinged. Zealous.
Suddenly, it seemed, striking down the nearly 50-year-old precedent was not enough.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote of his desire to revisit other rights like contraception and marriage equality. Some state legislators are trying to pass laws to punish those who travel elsewhere to get medical help to end their pregnancies. Other Republican politicians have ensured there is no exception for survivors of rape or incest. Doctors fear the threat of criminal charges. In some states, women’s pharmacy purchases are being scrutinized.

And it’s not just those choosing abortions who are being punished. In anti-abortion states, women who want to continue their pregnancies are confronting the fact that if something goes wrong, they may not get the lifesaving medical care they need, given that their doctors may be fearful of prosecution by state authorities.

Welcome to the new world. The Handmaid’s Tale is here.

But maybe not here to stay. Recent polls and electoral results suggest that Americans aren’t going to stand for this kind of radical upheaval. Not for long.

“Between guns, abortion and the Republicans’ behavior, people will be concerned enough to go to the polls,” said Roger Craver, cofounder and first employee of the government watchdog group Common Cause. “And a big turnout will be very important because that’s what will give Democrats the win.”

Will historical trends in midterm elections be uprooted? Will the party in the White House not face devastating losses in Congress? Is it possible that Republican promises to pass legislation that would ban abortion in every U.S. state could, in fact, help Democrats hold on to their majorities in both the House and the Senate?

Examining the Evidence

“I’ve been studying this issue for 20 years. The bottom line is most people want individuals making this decision, not the government,” said Tresa Undem, a partner at the research group PerryUndem. “The Washington Post did a poll asking if abortion should be decided by lawmakers or by the individual: 75 percent said the decision should be made by the individual.”

Thid may explain the results on Aug. 23 in New York’s 19th District, where Democrat Pat Ryan won a special election for Congress. Ryan won by 2 points in a swing district where, before the Dobbs decision came down, the Republican candidate was projected to win. Ryan made access to abortion a central issue in his campaign—as did Democrat Mary Peltola, who, in an upset win, defeated Sarah Palin in a special election on Aug. 16 to fill the late Rep. Don Young’s seat representing Alaska in the U.S. House.

It may also help make sense of why Kansas voters—predominantly conservative and Republican—overwhelmingly voted down a measure in August that would have amended the state constitution to allow the legislature to outlaw abortion.

Simply asking, ‘Are you pro-choice or pro-life?’ misses a lot of the nuance.

Cate Gormley, vice president of research at Lake Research Partners
Ms.’s Fall 2022 issue—get it here!

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe and the repressive laws in some states have “the ability to motivate some cohorts of voters who wouldn’t have turned out without this happening,” said Cate Gormley, vice president of research at Lake Research Partners. “This can persuade some voters who’re still trying to make a decision about how they’re going to vote.”

According to TargetSmart, a Democratic political data and data services firm, the intentions of the Kansas electorate “changed dramatically” after the Supreme Court’s decision to allow states to make abortion illegal. According to the firm: “Kansans turned out in record numbers in the primary and delivered a victory for abortion rights, a win fueled by Democrats out-registering Republicans by 9 points since the Dobbs decision was announced, with a staggering 70 percent of all new registrants being women.”

A long line of voters wraps around the Sedgwick County Historic Courthouse in Wichita, Kan., during early voting for the August primary; 56 percent of registered Democrats voted in the primary despite the fact that there were no heavily contested Democratic races that would have pulled in their votes. (Travis Heying / AP)

This could greatly impact races in swing states. For example, since the Supreme Court’s decision, the Senate race in Wisconsin has changed, putting Mandela Barnes, the Democrat, ahead of the Republican incumbent, Sen. Ron Johnson. A recent poll from Marquette University Law School found that 60 percent of Wisconsin respondents oppose Roe’s repeal. There, too, women have out-registered men by 15.6 percent since Dobbs was decided, and Democrats make up 52 percent of all of those newly registered voters, compared with 17 percent of new voters registering as Republicans.

In Michigan, where lawmakers are trying to revive a 1931 law that makes abortion a felony, women are out-registering men by 8.1 percentage points, and Democrats are out-registering Republicans by 18 percentage points, according to TargetSmart.

Among Independent women in Texas, two-thirds are pro-choice. … Abortion was the top issue for these women in voting, even ahead of school shootings and taxes and inflation and crime.

Tresa Undem, partner at research group PerryUndem

But these figures don’t tell the whole story. “When you talk about specific state bans, there’s a real ability for someone to say ‘I’m pro-life’ and then vote no for giving the legislature the ability to regulate abortion,” Gormley said. “Simply asking, ‘Are you pro-choice or pro-life?’ misses a lot of the nuance.”

Of course Democrats, traditionally more in favor of women’s rights than Republicans, are much more likely to vote for an abortion-rights candidate. But the desire to return reproductive control over women’s bodies to the women themselves is a majority opinion among another political grouping—one not always presumed to be supportive.

In a recent national Washington Post poll, 59 percent of voters who identified as Independent support a federal law ensuring legal abortion before the point of viability (approximately 24 weeks into a pregnancy). And 28 percent of them say abortion will be the single most important issue to them when they go to the polls.
That’s true even in a state like Texas.

“I did a survey recently where I found out that among Independent women in Texas, two-thirds are pro-choice,” Undem said. “And even more surprising: Abortion was the top issue for these women in voting, even ahead of school shootings and taxes and inflation and crime. Among Independent women, abortion is typically never the top issue. Those sort of signs in the data suggest some promising changes for Democrats in Texas and elsewhere.”

Add to this the increased sense of insecurity that Americans may be experiencing today. The recent increase in mass shootings in the U.S. is also galvanizing voters, and these two issues are not entirely unrelated.

“For Democrats, the top two issues are abortion and shootings—safety,” Undem said. “It’s about power and control. Conservative religious politicians … are restricting one right while having no rules on another right. Both issues signal the type of country you want. The direction we’re heading is not the direction most voters want.”

Craver agreed: “Most people feel unsafe in our society. If I were a young woman or man, I’d feel unsafe about guns, and then compound that with young women of childbearing age, who find that their options have been taken away. Guns reflect some of the violence, but these anti-abortion laws reflect subtle violence.”

And, of course, we hear much about another top issue for voters: the economy. While economic issues, and certainly inflation, are often near or at the top of the list of issues that voters care about when going to the polls, that doesn’t mean that someone who cares about the economy won’t vote for a pro-abortion candidate. First of all, that candidate may inspire confidence when speaking about the economy. Also important: Voters may understand that access to abortion care is an economic issue.

“Real people understand how tied their personal fortunes are to their access to reproductive choice,” Gormley said. “It feels dishonest to say that the economy is a separate issue from abortion.”

A Question of Turnout

Generally speaking, in a midterm election year, registered Republicans show up at higher rates than registered Democrats, though it can vary depending on which party has control of the Oval Office. The vote in Kansas turned that notion on its head: About 56 percent of registered Democrats voted as opposed to 53 percent of registered Republicans.

Recent polling indicates high voter enthusiasm among Democrats and Independents who are angry about the Supreme Court’s anti-abortion decision and feel an eagerness to take action. Charlie Crist, who recently won the Democratic primary in Florida and now will face Ron DeSantis in the governor’s race there, has made the case that “our fundamental freedoms are literally on the ballot—a woman’s right to choose, democracy is on the ballot.”

Democratic Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, is leading his Republican challenger by 10 points. In Florida, Democrat Rep. Val Demings is chasing sitting Republican Sen. Marco Rubio 44-48 in a race that had been predicted to go easily to the incumbent.


Perhaps much of this can be explained by the “registration gap” pollsters are seeing: More women are registering to vote since Roe was overturned. In Wisconsin, according to TargetSmart, there was a 16 percent gap in favor of women. And in Florida there was a 5 percent gap.

The electorate in a midterm election is also typically older than in a general election. But with abortion on the line, younger voters might mobilize to turn out in great numbers.

A July poll released by Emerson College showed that 81 percent of Democratic voters and 58 percent of Independent voters sup- port federal legislative action to legalize abortion. The greatest support came from 18- to 29-year-olds, 76 percent of whom would support a federal law legalizing abortion.

“Young people are pretty furious about this,” Gormley said. “People who are getting pregnant right now are younger people.”

And it goes beyond those who want an abortion. In anti-abortion states, she added, “Anytime there’s a negative pregnancy outcome, it’s incumbent on the pregnant woman to prove it wasn’t an abortion. This is real life for young people. Young people have fewer rights than their parents and grandparents, and that’s the reality of what young people are facing today.”

This is a trend Undem saw when she conducted a survey in January. “We asked, among voters 18-44, ‘Do you plan to have children, and in an ideal world would you want to?’ Fifty-three percent said they would want to, but only 30 percent plan to do so. Then we asked, ‘Can you imagine a situation where abortion could be a good option?’ Sixty-seven percent of women said yes.”

Back in February, well before the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs, Roshni Nedungadi, founding partner of HIT Strategies, a research firm that specializes in understanding minority groups and young people, conducted focus groups of young women in Michigan, trying to gauge the likelihood that they would vote in the November election. These women were selected specifically because they were disinclined to vote in the midterm elections this year.

“They just didn’t see how voting for governor or people running for Congress would impact their lives,” Nedungadi said. “But when we explained to them that because of trigger laws, Gov. [Gretchen] Whitmer is the only thing standing in the way of abortion being banned in Michigan, it was like a switch had been flipped. Then suddenly there was nothing that could stop them from going to the polls. Making that connection is going to be really important for campaigns.”

Meanwhile, Latina/o voters, who typically are not enthusiastic about abortion rights, now say that abortion is a top issue for them to consider when voting, according to a survey from the civil rights and advocacy group UnidosUS and the civic engagement organization Mi Familia Vota. An overwhelming majority of respondents to that survey—more than 70 percent—said that abortion should be legal, and 77 percent said they would probably vote in the upcoming November election.


The Anti-Abortion Mindset


In a 2020 poll by PerryUndem, well before the Dobbs decision was made and abortion rights overturned, results showed something surprising. While conventional wisdom would have us believe that those who are against abortion hold those beliefs because of their views on ending a life, the truth is this issue is very tied to voters’ beliefs about women.

For example, in a 2019 poll by PerryUndem and SuperMajority, those who wanted abortion to be deemed illegal in all or most cases also didn’t believe that the way women are treated in society is an important issue, and didn’t think the country would be better off if we had more women holding political office. They did think that women are too easily offended (some 77 percent versus 38 percent of voters who support legal abortion), and fewer than half of them want there to be equal numbers of women and men in positions of power in society.

While these views are rarely stated in public by anti-abortion politicians, we know that when reproductive freedom is taken away from families, it’s women who may be forced out of the workforce for a period of time, women who will earn less money over their lifetimes, and women who will likely have fewer educational and career opportunities.

The anti-choice movement wasn’t subtle about what their goal was,” Gormley said. “And when they say their next goal is a federal ban, we have to believe them. [Abortion] could be banned everywhere. But we can work together now to prevent that.”

Will we prevent that? Will Democrats and Independents and maybe some Republicans send a message to anti-abortion politicians in November? Roger Craver believes so.

“Republicans have overplayed their hand,” he said. “If a political party has become this radical … Americans never put up with ex- tremes for very long. This is our last chance to put a lid on this craziness. “This is really an election for millions of women’s lives and an election for all of us who care about democracy,” he adds. “If these peo- ple can roll it back more, they will. They will go after contraception and gay rights. They just don’t want this society to move forward. They want to go back to the ’50s.”

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Linda Burstyn is a TV drama writer, a political journalist and a feminist activist.