‘We Told You So’: The Abortion Issue Drove the Midterms

Voters showed up and proved pundits and pollsters wrong.

Abortion rights activists hold placards at the Monroe County Courthouse during a protest vigil a few hours before Indiana’s near total abortion ban went into effect in Bloomington, Indiana, September 2022. (Jeremy Hogan / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

In the weeks leading up to the recent midterm election, the pundits and the mass media were beating the drumbeat of doom for Democrats so loudly that many voices in the party began to wonder if they themselves had gone deaf.  

Could it be that the pollsters and the media were onto something? Was it true that American women had somehow gotten over (or even forgotten!) the fact that a radical faction of the Supreme Court had handed control over their reproductive systems to local politicians? Was it indeed possible that anti-abortion Republicans were going to ride a wave of victory despite their desire to keep American women barefoot and pregnant?

Turns out abortion rights advocates and experts had gotten it right—it was the mass media and patriarchal punditry that was not listening.  

As we all know by now, Democrats outperformed all expectations, and the “red tsunami” never materialized. “It was abortion that made a huge difference in race after race,” said Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners, a top Democratic polling firm. “In well over half the races, it was the issue of abortion that increased turnout of Democrats and younger voters.”

According to nationwide exit polling by Edison Research, abortion was the second most important issue for voters, trailing the top issue—inflation—by only four percentage points. The exit polls closely tracked Ms.’s polling of battleground states, released in October, which showed similar numbers. For young women, abortion was the most important issue headed into the midterms. 

In well over half the races, it was the issue of abortion that increased turnout of Democrats and younger voters.

Celinda Lake

In the swing state of Pennsylvania, abortion was even more crucial. There, it was the number ONE issue on voters’ minds—helping Josh Shapiro win the gubernatorial race and John Fetterman win his race against Dr. Oz, helping tip the balance of seats to the Democrats in the Senate. 

In Kansas, a solidly Republican state, Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids won reelection to the House, in a district that had just been redrawn by Republicans to favor her anti-abortion opponent. Kansas voters also re-elected their Democratic governor. (Let us not forget, Kansas voters struck down an anti-abortion ballot measure last August by massive margins.)

And, in five states, abortion itself was on the ballot in the form of provisions or proposed constitutional amendments. In each of these measures, pro-abortion rights voters prevailed. In California, Michigan and Vermont, voters codified the right to abortion into their state’s constitutions. And in Kentucky and Montana, voters rejected amendments that said there was no right to abortion in their constitution, and granted personhood status to embryos, respectively. 

“These women just went crazy,” exclaimed a Democratic strategist on Fox News. “Abortion is becoming the issue that’s driving turnout.” 

Uh, yeah. 

Apparently, women aren’t likely to forget their loss of control over their own fertility—not during the midterms and not anytime soon. In fact, voter turnout and voter rage around abortion could pave the way forward in the effort to hold onto democracy itself in the future. 

“We should think about placing choice initiatives on state ballots in 2024,” said Lake. “It helps increase registration and turnout and of course makes a big difference for women in those states. We should draw clear contrasts on abortion in 2023 and 2024 with our opponents and should be vigilant against the Republicans when they try to pass a national ban.”

There is no doubt that history was made in the balloting this year, and that women and young voters wrote that history. A midterm election favoring the party in power might be an anomaly … but then again, the Supreme Court reversing their own 50-year-old precedent and taking away the fundamental right to autonomy—that was an anomaly too.

But that still leaves us with this conundrum: Why did the pollsters and the media paint such a distorted picture?

“Never underestimate the power of the patriarchy,” said Lake. “It was conventional wisdom in the beltway, and 95 percent of the time, the beltway is wrong.”  

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.