It’s probably still the economy, stupid

Burden on Democrats to show abortion rights will motivate their voters

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., joined by, from left, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks Thursday during a news conference to announce the Senate will vote on the Women's Health Protection Act of 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., joined by, from left, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks Thursday during a news conference to announce the Senate will vote on the Women's Health Protection Act of 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 9, 2022 at 12:27pm

ANALYSIS — The possibility that the Supreme Court will overrule Roe v. Wade — or severely restrict the right to legal abortion — has Democrats hoping progressive and abortion-rights voters will be energized by the decision, thereby improving the party’s prospects for November. 

There is no question that abortion is a more salient issue now than it was just a couple of weeks ago, shortly before Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s leaked draft opinion overruling Roe. 

But with six months to go until the midterms, we can’t possibly know what other issues will surface in the months ahead — issues that could either overshadow abortion rights or increase the salience of the issue. 

Will we see another round of COVID-19? Where will U.S.-Russia relations stand? Will the Supreme Court issue other opinions that reverse other rights?

State legislators around the country could easily propose more extreme limitations on privacy rights, banning certain types of contraceptives or labeling abortion as homicide.

The more extreme the discussion gets, the more likely Democrats will benefit.

While public opinion polls consistently show support for preserving Roe is strong, the key electoral questions are (1) How many people will change their partisan vote intention because Roe is overturned? And: (2) How many voters who normally would stay home during a midterm election will instead turn out to support candidates who favor abortion rights?

Yes, abortion energizes voters at both end of the ideological spectrum, which could have a partisan impact in the fall election. But it could also be buried under a mountain of news stories about inflation and recession.

Abortion is a top topic today in the news because the Alito draft was leaked a few days ago, but higher prices and even a possible recession could trump abortion in November.

Historically, when the economy is the top issue, it tends to push every other issue into the background. Voters care more about whether they can pay their rent, they have food to eat, and their Aunt Gladys has a job rather than about vitally important issues like climate change, education, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or even abortion rights.

Democrats do have reason to hope the additional attention to Roe could help the party turn out voters during the midterms. 

Younger voters, in particular, tend to lose interest in non-presidential elections, and some Democratic voters impatient with the Biden administration and disappointed that the president has not accomplished more may well now have another reason to rally behind Democratic candidates in the fall. 

Swing voters — particularly college-educated white women who live in the suburbs — could also be affected by the increased salience of abortion in the public arena, helping Democrats hold onto a handful of districts that they would have lost had Roe not become an issue.

And Democratic statewide candidates in liberal and swing states that are more supportive of abortion rights — like New Hampshire — could also be affected by the court’s ruling.

Democratic officeholders and media talking heads are likely to keep the heat on this issue all the way to November, well aware that former President Donald Trump’s role in constructing the current court can only increase the visibility of the issue and the likelihood that abortion will be a voting cue in the midterms. 

At the very least, the draft opinion overruling Roe has given Democrats a new narrative to use against the GOP, which has been dominating the political debate with issues like the economy, inflation, crime, immigration and even education.

Of course, if Roe is not overruled (but abortion rights are narrowed), some abortion-rights voters will breathe a sign of relief. But that development would also make the issue less weighty, making it more difficult for Democrats to use the issue to motivate voters.

The one thing certain is that the two parties will spend the next six months battling over abortion rights, with each portraying the other as extreme and radical.

The side that wins that definitional fight will be better positioned to take advantage of the topic in the fall. The burden of proof remains on Democrats to demonstrate that abortion in general and the overruling of Roe v. Wade in particular can and will change the trajectory of the 2022 election.