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How and when to assess abortion ruling’s campaign impact

Take care in analyzing polls taken right after Dobbs ruling

For Democrats' chances in the midterm elections to improve, voter approval of President Joe Biden probably has to go up, and so far that has not happened, analyst Nathan L Gonzales.
For Democrats' chances in the midterm elections to improve, voter approval of President Joe Biden probably has to go up, and so far that has not happened, analyst Nathan L Gonzales. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade is a historic event, but it will take at least a few weeks, if not longer, to know whether it is an election-changing event. 

Arguably the worst time to measure the political impact of an event is while it is still going on. The second worst time would be the immediate aftermath. The best option is to wait for the event to settle, let voters wrestle with it, and give enough time for pollsters to hear from those voters. 

Of course there’s an appetite for immediate reaction, so there are already at least two surveys helping shape the early narrative.

Fifty-six percent of registered voters opposed the Supreme Court’s decision, compared to 40 percent who supported it, according to the latest NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll conducted on Friday after the decision and on Saturday. 

Similarly, 49 percent disapproved of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and 40 percent supported it in the latest Politico/Morning Consult poll, conducted Friday and Saturday as well. 

This sentiment should not be a surprise and doesn’t guarantee the decision will alter the trajectory of the midterm elections. A majority of Americans have opposed overturning Roe going back more than 30 years, according to Gallup. But there’s always been more nuance to abortion-related polling. 

Going back to 1996, a majority of adults have been in support of legal abortion in the first trimester but less than 30 percent of adults were comfortable with it in the second trimester and less than 15 percent in support of legal abortion in the third trimester. Through that lens, the Supreme Court decision in the Dobbs case, which bans abortion after 15 weeks is close to the majority position. At a higher level, the court’s decision to rescind the previously agreed on right to an abortion is the bigger issue.

Subsequent state laws being enacted go farther and are more restrictive than the Mississippi law and are outside of the mainstream view on the issue. To the extent their candidates or officials take  “always” or “never” approaches to access to abortion, neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party represent a majority of Americans. 

In order for abortion to make an impact on the midterm elections, it probably needs to boost President Joe Biden’s political standing. I’m skeptical the Dobbs decision will do it because nothing has affected his job rating in a significant way in nearly a year. A majority of Americans disapprove of the job he is doing and his rating has been static. 

Of course it’s possible that this Supreme Court decision is so big that it breaks that trend in some way. Rather than spurring a macro change in the political environment, it’s more likely that the decision impacts a series of individual races that could have broader implications because of the narrow majorities. GOP candidates may stumble when being asked about new, restrictive state laws or stumble when talking about women’s bodies in general. Democratic candidates, meanwhile, risk staking out positions that are more liberal than a majority of the electorate. 

Democrats may be encouraged that public sentiment is already on their side. 

The Marist poll showed Democrats with a sizable 7-point edge (48 percent to 41 percent) on the generic congressional ballot. Some reporters compared it to the April Marist survey which showed Republicans with a 3-point advantage. But the Marist poll has consistently been friendly to Democrats. It gave Democrats an 8-point edge way back in September and even a 5-point advantage (47 percent to 42 percent) more recently in May. 

As with any polling data, the best thing to do is look at multiple polls for the trend. And when doing so, Republicans still have the edge on the generic ballot. They had 2-point leads in both the RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight national averages that included the recent Marist survey. 

Democrats should probably be alarmed by a new voter registration study conducted by the Associated Press. The AP showed more than 1 million voters across 43 states have switched to the Republican Party over the last year. The study also found that 630,000 switched to the Democratic Party, so the net impact isn’t as large as the headlines suggested. But Republicans boosted their share of party changers in 72 percent of the suburban counties examined by the AP.

My working hypothesis is that some Republican voters in the suburbs despised Trump’s style to the point where they supported Biden and other congressional Democrats. But now that Democrats are in charge and the country is facing major problems including inflation, high gas prices, and crime, those voters are remembering why they voted for Republicans for so long before Trump. 

We’ve all learned to be open-minded about election outcomes after a couple of public misses. But as it still stands, we are headed for a typical midterm election in which the president’s party is likely to suffer losses, until there’s solid evidence to the contrary.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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