Abortion: Two reasons the controversial issue might not be the gamechanger progressives expect

The conventional wisdom holds that abortion will be a decisive issue in the midterm elections and beyond, providing a much needed edge for Democrats, enough to defy historical trends, but there are two reasons why that might not be the case and some cracks in the wisdom are already showing.

Ever since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision overturning Roe v. Wade, eliminating abortion’s status as a Constitutionally protected right, political prognosticators, primarily from the left, but also from the center and the right, have claimed the issue is likely to be gamechanger for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond.  The thinking behind this belief is very straight forward:  Progressive abortion activists will be reinvigorated, and moderate, mostly suburban women, would demand abortion’s reinstatement as a guaranteed right across the United States.  The combination of the two would overcome a poor economy, broken borders, high inflation, and international unrest, plus the general historical trends for midterm elections, when the party in power usually loses seats in the House and often the Senate.  The center-left Brookings Institution summed up this position nicely in an article last week, “The abortion issue in the 2022 midterms–unlike any other issue.”  Elaine Kamarck asked the question on everyone’s mind:  “As we near the midterm elections many are asking how will the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion influence how people vote? With a host of other issues like inflation, student loans, the war in Ukraine, immigration, the president’s age, and the pandemic competing for the attention of voters, just how important is the issue of abortion?”  Her answer:  “Very. The reason is that in politics, intensity matters. Unlike every other issue pollsters ask about, abortion and the broader questions it raises about reproductive health are central to the existence of 51.1% of the population in a way that no other issue in politics is or has ever been.”  There is at least some evidence of this in opinion polling.  Late this spring, Gallup found that 61% of Americans believe abortion should be legal with only 37% claiming it should be illegal in most if not all cases.  Similarly, polls about the issues that matter most generally find abortion on the list, sometimes even near the top.  For example, last months NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found abortion to be second only to inflation as the top issue on voters’ minds.

Therefore, it seems reasonable to believe that abortion will be an important factor for Democrats and the belief has hardened into what some may call the conventional wisdom on the matter, but there are at least two flaws in this theory, at least in my opinion.  First, abortion has always been an issue that is far more complex than it is normally described.  Reducing this complexity to a poll question that asks only whether it should be legal or illegal eliminates the nuance lurking just beneath the surface.  The 61% of Gallup respondents who believe abortion should be legal do not necessarily believe legal means free from any and all restrictions.  What we might call the abortion-on-demand view is shared by a much smaller percentage of the population, most of whom are progressive abortion activists that would never vote for a Republican under any circumstances.  Likewise, the belief that abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest is held by a small percentage of anti-abortion activists, religious conservatives who would never vote for a Democrat.  CNN’s resident data analyst, Harry Enten, captured some of this complexity in May, before the Supreme Court decision was officially handed down, but after the draft opinion was leaked.  As he put it, “Issue polling in general is tricky, and the issue of abortion rights is particularly hard to poll. While it does seem that more Americans want the procedure to be legal than not, people on all sides of the issue can find something they like in the polling on abortion.”  He referenced Lydia Saad’s round up at Gallup, which looked at almost twenty ways the issue has been polled and “found anywhere from massive support for abortion rights (north of 80% for abortions to save the life of the mother) to massive opposition (only about 10% were in favor of legal third-trimester abortions).”  AP-NORC broke the question down into four responses in a 2021 poll, whether abortion should be always legal, mostly legal, mostly illegal, or always illegal.  When asked that way, the “always legal” response registered only 23% compared to 13% for “always illegal.”  The 30% who responded “mostly illegal” and the 33% “mostly legal,” represent 63% of the population, suggesting that much of this debate is driven by activists with hardened views.

Moreover, polls that ask simply whether a person is pro-choice or pro-life usually generate responses within the margin of error.  The AP-NORC poll found 49% pro-choice compared to 47% pro-life.   The question in a post-Roe world is how the 63% of the population that believes some form of restrictions should be placed on the procedure votes when presented with a binary choice.  What happens when the complexity is stripped away and you must pick one side or the other?  In other words, what do people find more extreme or undesirable, a world without abortion entirely, or a world with abortion on demand and the horrific practice of late-term abortion?  I consider myself in this regard.  When asked whether I’m pro-choice or pro-life, I respond pro-life, but that does not mean I advocate outlawing abortion entirely.  Pragmatically speaking, the procedure exists and it will occur no matter what I might wish; California, New York, New Jersey, etc. will not ban it in another thousand years.  Philosophically speaking, I do not believe it is morally just for anyone deny a victim of rape or incest, or a cancer patient that needs treatment, access to the procedure because of some ethical high ground.  If it were up to me, abortion should be legal early in the pregnancy, and we can debate whether that means 10 weeks, 12 weeks, 14 weeks, or something similar.  That is not the purpose of this post.  At the same time, I find partial-birth abortion to be even more morally repugnant than no abortion.  One might describe me as being in the old “safe, legal, and rare” school of thought.  If I had to make the classic “lesser of two evils” choice between the two, I would choose no abortion at all rather than allow infants to be partially born only to be impaled with a spike, after which their brains are sucked out.

How an individual voter answers this question at the end of a political campaign will undoubtedly be influenced by the relative skill of the politicians involved. The politician that succeeds in branding their opponent as an extremist on either side of the issue is likely to benefit.  Here, Republican candidates with good political instincts, might well have an unexpected advantage, not accounted for in the conventional wisdom.  There’s a reason why Democrats rarely come out and say that abortion should be legal anytime before birth, and sometimes immediately after, all with no restrictions, no parental notifications, or any reasonable controls.   They understand this is repugnant to many voters, doing their best to dodge the truth and focus on a more hazy right to choose.  This, however, will be much more difficult do when politicians at all levels will be making and defending specific proposals about abortion for the first time in almost 50 years.  Democrats faced with a reasonably talented Republican will not be able to avoid the partial birth abortion question, and pressed on the issue, they might well say something catastrophic like former Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s comment that we keep the baby “comfortable” as “discussions…ensue between the physicians and the mother.”  The comment need not be specific to partial birth abortion either.  Georgia Gubernatorial Candidate Stacey Abrams did herself no favors in a red-leaning state by claiming the sound of the heartbeat a mother hears through an ultrasound is fake.  “There is no such thing as a heartbeat at six weeks. It is a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have the right to take control of a woman’s body,” she said.  This kind of callous disconnect with the average person’s experience could easily outweigh any slight advantage the simplified abortion question might yield.  Republicans, for the first time in modern memory, have an opportunity to go on offense and change the terms of the debate, upending conventional wisdom in the process.

The second reason this conventional wisdom might be upended has to do with experience in general.  Abortion is undoubtedly a controversial topic with fierce advocates on both sides, but it is also an issue that affects a small number of people at any given time in a population well over 300 million.  The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion non-profit, estimates that there are about 900,000 abortions performed per year, around 20 out of every 100 pregnancies.  The CDC generally reports lower data, around 600,000, but does not include numbers for California, Maryland, New Hampshire, and Washington, DC.  Both methods of reporting show substantial declines in recent decades, down 7% since just 2014.  2017, in particular, was an historic low after a peak in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  At 2014 rates, Guttmacher estimated that slightly less than one in four women will have an abortion by age 45, but other sources put the figure lower.  Their own data from 2017 found 13.5 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44, a rate of 1.35%.  Whatever the actual number, it is clear that abortion doesn’t come close to impacting a majority of women, much less total voters.  How likely is it that a relatively low impact issue will have a large impact on the election?  Anything is possible, but I can think of no other issue that has such a disproportionate impact.  The extremes of both parties are already locked in, and each would never vote for the other.  Elections, however, are won and lost in the middle based on the issues that impact a broad swath of voters.  Inflation and high gas prices, for example, are something everyone experiences every time they go to the store or fill up their tank.  The spike in violent crime is not quite as close to home for most people, but bleeds out from urban areas in the local news.  The border and international unrest have an impact even further removed, but are similarly covered in the media and the reality seeps into voters’ minds.  Ultimately, the human mind can only focus on so much at once, not more than a handful of things at any given moment in time.  What’s top of mind gets our attention and influences our behavior.  In that light, it’s difficult to see how abortion will be top of mind for a large enough percentage of voters come election day to make a substantive different in the outcome.  

Needless to say, nobody knows for sure.  Obviously, there will be some impact, if only in fundraising, engagement, and energy, but there is some early evidence my suspicion might be correct.  Yesterday, Mr. Enten reported on how abortion might be “fading” from voters’ minds.  “It ranked seventh when compared to other issues when Americans were asked to name issues that were extremely or very important to them in a recent Monmouth University poll. Gallup polling showed 8% of Americans named abortion as the nation’s most important problem in July. That was the highest since Gallup began tracking abortion as an important problem in 1984. In their most recent poll, only 4% said abortion was the most important problem. Additionally, the percentage of Americans who listed the judicial system/courts/laws as the most important problem dropped from 5% in July to 2% now.”  Regardless, Ms. Karmarck might still be correct when she claimed “abortion and the broader questions it raises about reproductive health are central to the existence of 51.1% of the population in a way that no other issue in politics is or has ever been,” or as racing friend of mine put it recently:  Men vote with their wallets, women with their uterus.  I suspect they are wrong for the reasons detailed here and that any impact will be small and localized, but we will all know for sure come November 9 when we wake up in a new political world.

2 thoughts on “Abortion: Two reasons the controversial issue might not be the gamechanger progressives expect”

  1. Thanks for this discussion. We, the CentristIndependentVoter.com, wrestled with the abortion question longer than any other before arriving at a consensus policy position. Our position is that abortion ought to be legal for the first 27 weeks and restricted thereafter except for cases affecting the health of the mother or cases of catastrophic birth defects, like anencephaly. This view is informed by a deep dive into the actual policies in other developed countries and a study done buy the CDC that indicated how exceedingly rare true 3rd trimester abortions are. That study found that in all of those cases an abortion would have been permitted under the above rule. No policy is perfect but this seems to be least bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I admit to not having done all that much analysis on the appropriate cut off. I think Texas 13 weeks is likely to short a period. I would suggest something in the 16 to 20 week range myself, but I think it’s more important that we have a reasonable debate around it than cause further divisions.

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