It Wasn’t Just ‘the Economy Stupid’—It Was Abortion

In the 2022 midterms, abortion proved important enough to women’s lives to snatch victory from the Republicans, and durable enough to send a message about the future.

A woman votes as she holds a child at Fox Theatre on Nov. 8, 2022 in Atlanta, Ga. (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

This article was originally published by The Brookings Institution.

The Supreme Court’s decision to reverse nearly 50 years of precedent and send the abortion issue back to the states sent shock waves throughout the country. During the summer months the implications of that decision were widely held to be helping the Democrats in what had been shaping up to be a dismal midterm election year. In some states voter registration of women surged. But by Labor Day the conventional wisdom had swung back. No, insisted most pundits, abortion wouldn’t drive many votes, but inflation would.

How wrong they were.

The first indication came early on election night in CNN’s exit polls. To the obvious surprise of the on-air talent, abortion came in a close second to inflation: 31 percent said inflation was their top issue, but 27 percent said abortion was. Despite late pre-election polls showing abortion sinking to third or fourth place or disappearing, there are several reasons why the issue never really went away.

First, there are a lot of women in America, they are evenly distributed across the country, and they consistently vote more often than men—as the following table from our colleague Bill Frey here at Brookings illustrates.

This year was no different. According to CNN exit polls, women constituted 52 percent of the vote and men 48 percent. That is an enormous difference.

Let’s assume that turnout in 2022 ends up being about the same as the record 2018 turnout—roughly 116 million votes. The women’s share of that vote? 60,320,000.

Exit polls also show that 53 percent of women voted Democratic. That’s 31,969,600 votes—a big number. Hillary Clinton, who clearly shares our frustration with those who discounted the women’s vote, tweeted out the following clearly sarcastic comment: “It turns out women enjoy having human rights, and we vote.”

Apart from the sheer magnitude of the women’s vote is the issue of intensity. Unlike men, women spend a great deal of their lives thinking about reproduction. They have no choice. Even in the 21st century, pregnancy is still a dangerous business, and women’s healthcare is no place for government bureaucrats. No wonder that women think abortion is a lot more important than men do. As the election season entered its final stretch, and many Republican candidates got a crash course in obstetrics, some pulled back and/or softened their previous hard lines on abortion.

The importance of the issue was seen most clearly in the Senate debate in Pennsylvania. Although the Democrat, John Fetterman gave a halting performance because he was still recovering from a serious stroke, his opponent, Republican Mehmet Oz, managed to make what had to be one of the most damaging comments on abortion ever: “I want women, doctors and local political leaders” to make these decisions.

The sheer absurdity of that comment went a long way towards distracting voters from the issue of Fetterman’s health and reminded many that government shouldn’t be making those decisions.

There is no pro-inflation and anti-inflation party … But abortion is different. One party is clearly in favor of keeping it legal in most or all circumstances and the other is not.

Finally, abortion is fundamentally different from inflation. Inflation is unpopular with both parties—there is no pro-inflation and anti-inflation party. In fact, if we’ve learned anything about politics in our polarized time it’s that voters see almost all issues through their partisan lens. Democrats worried about inflation could think that Joe Biden was dealing with it and Republicans that Joe Biden caused it.

But abortion is different. One party is clearly in favor of keeping it legal in most or all circumstances and the other is not.

If you put together the sheer size of the women’s vote, the intensity of the issue and the fact that, unlike inflation or the economy, the two parties have stark differences on the issue, you get a powerful driver of the vote.

There were five states with abortion referenda on the ballot and in every single one—including the deep red state of Kentucky—the pro-choice position won. In Michigan, where the abortion referendum won by 13.4 percent, it is not far-fetched to assume that it helped the Democrats keep several congressional seats. And in Pennsylvania, where abortion topped inflation by 9 points, Democrats picked up the only Senate seat so far.

The following table shows the percentage of voters in each of the crucial states and how they rated inflation and abortion. In most cases abortion was a close second; in Michigan and Pennsylvania it was far ahead of inflation.

In Pennsylvania, where abortion topped inflation by 9 points, Democrats picked up the only Senate seat so far.

(Brookings Institute, results according to CNN exit polls)

Central to the story of the 2022 midterms, then, is an issue central to women’s lives, powerful enough to snatch victory from the Republicans, and durable enough to send a message about the future.

Up next:

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About and

Elaine C. Kamarck is a senior fellow in the governance studies program as well as the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. She is an expert on American electoral politics and government innovation and reform in the United States, OECD nations, and developing countries. She focuses her research on the presidential nomination system and American politics and has worked in many American presidential campaigns. Kamarck is the author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates and Why Presidents Fail And How They Can Succeed Again. She is also the author of How Change Happens—or Doesn’t: The Politics of U.S. Public Policy and The End of Government-As We Know It: Making Public Policy Work.
William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha chair in the Brookings Institution’s governance studies program, where he serves as a senior fellow. Prior to January 2006 he was the Saul Stern professor and acting dean at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland, director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, founding director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), and executive director of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, co-chaired by former Secretary of Education William Bennett and former Senator Sam Nunn. A participant in six presidential campaigns, he served from 1993 to 1995 as deputy assistant to President Clinton for domestic policy.