Nonsense, but Democrats will certainly hope that turns out to be the case. That’s not to say that the apparent overturning of Roe won’t have a political impact. It will. The impact and eventual resolution just won’t be to either party’s taste, and it will mainly be felt in state legislatures rather than in federal elections, at least for a while.
We’ll get back to that shortly. Both The Hill and Punchbowl predict today that Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs will transform the abortion issue from background noise to top-tier issue. Niall Stanage makes this the final point of his five predictions for The Hill, albeit with an escape hatch:
The salience of abortion to November’s midterm elections just climbed sharply.
Conservatives had hoped, and liberals feared, that the Court might reach the conclusion reflected in Alito’s draft. But the reality gives the issue far greater force.
That said, whether abortion will single-handedly shift many votes is less clear. The economy, inflation and President Biden’s handling of the pandemic may matter more to uncommitted voters.
The Washington Post offers up a “could” in its similar prediction, although they do concede it might fire up both sides:
In an already divided country, political battle lines hardened Tuesday with the prospect that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade — a move that threatens to upend the 2022 midterm elections and turn the campaign into a massive mobilizing effort over the issues of abortion, individual rights and the contrasting philosophies of the two major political parties. …
“The right wants to take this to a place — and I think this will be a problem for the right — to a very dark place that I don’t think Americans are prepared for,” said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg. “Gender politics has been relatively muted for some time. This brings it to the fore and it will be dramatically different than what we’ve seen for a long time.”
Countering that view were assertions by Republicans and opponents of abortion who said their supporters too would be energized by a decision sought for decades to overturn a half-century of constitutionally protected abortion rights, and that issues such as inflation and crime will continue to influence voters’ decisions as much or more than abortion rights.
“A strong defense of life is a vote winner,” said Kristi Hamrick, chief media and policy strategist for Students for Life, one of the largest antiabortion groups. “It energizes people.”
We’ll get back to that in a moment, too. Punchbowl similarly offers a prediction that the landscape has dramatically changed. Abortion will come back to top of the issue list after years of languishing at the bottom, they warn:
→ When Gallup asked respondents what they thought was the most important problem facing the United States today, fewer than half of one percent answered abortion in December 2021, January 2022 or February 2022. In March 2022, that number slipped to zero.
→ The AP-NORC pollsters selected 11 issue areas in December 2021 when surveying respondents on what problems they would like the government to work on in 2022. Abortion didn’t even make the list.
→ In our very own February Canvass survey of top Hill aides, just eight percent said abortion would be a top focus for Congress in 2022.
→ Biden barely mentioned the issue during his State of the Union address on March 1, giving it only three sentences. A bill to codify Roe (the Women’s Health Protection Act) garnered only 46 votes in the Senate on Feb. 28.
All that has changed now, however. The big question is by how much? And what will the final decision look like in the Mississippi 15-week abortion ban case at the center of the controversy? Can Democrats use the shock and anger felt by abortion rights supporters over the looming Roe ruling to turn around what’s been looking like a dismal cycle for them?
They’d certainly love to think so. The media will be game to help them out. But there’s a reason why the polls showed abortion to be a low-tier issue for most Americans, even when it became clear that the court was about to overturn Roe in Dobbs. The Gallup polls in February and March should have been instructive on this point, coming after the January oral arguments in Dobbs that tipped everyone to the likely outcome of this case.
The lesson here is that abortion had reached a saturation point long ago in American politics. The people who are single-issue voters on this topic are already accounted for. Everyone else might vote on the basis of abortion in the absence of any other crises, but we are surrounded by crises in this cycle. Inflation is at 40-year highs and still climbing, and crime rates are exploding. Supply chain disruptions make goods tough to find, even in grocery aisles. Those are issues that impact the lives of voters every day. Abortion is, for most voters, an abstract — and a morally problematic abstract at that.
If Alito’s draft opinion holds in Dobbs, the issue will shift back to states more than Congress, where neither party will have enough strength to impose their will on legislation in this cycle or others to come. But even there, both parties have the same problem, brought on by Roe’s ability to strip accountability from political grandstanding, which is that both parties represent the extremes on abortion.
Democrats want abortion on demand through all nine months of pregnancy, without any restriction. Republicans want abortion banned altogether. While I count myself among those who oppose it entirely, it’s been clear for decades that the vast majority of Americans in every state land in between these positions. Even in Gallup’s national polling where the question is asked softly, far more Americans want abortion regulated rather than made an unfettered right or banned, a position consistent in every survey taken since Roe got handed down. Other polls put those extremes at smaller numbers.
With Roe and Casey in place, there wasn’t much negotiation attempted except in court. If they get vacated, that negotiation has to return to legislatures, where it belonged all along. And that negotiation will, just by the force of political math and the numbers of moderates on this issue, eventually end up with compromise solutions that fit the electorates. It might look different in every state, but practically every state will have to make some accommodation for abortion in order to satisfy voters, and practically every state will have to limit access to them for the same reason. And through that process, we will end up with an actual “settlement” on abortion based on the will of the voters rather than the fake “settlement” of Roe and fifty years of shouting.
But that will be a long process, not one settled in a single cycle, and abortion won’t be a major issue in these midterms anyway, at least not in federal elections. It might have some impact in state legislatures, where the issue will suddenly become acute again, but I doubt that will be the case in this cycle either. People want to stop the erosion of their buying power, stop the crime in the neighborhoods, and get access to goods and especially energy that they had just a couple of years ago. Those are the issues that will drive this election.
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