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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

July 8: What Do the Polls Tell Us About a 2022 Dobbs Effect?

It’s kind of important for Democrats to think clearly, not wishfully, about the political implications of the Dobbs decision, which aren’t as important, to be clear, as the immediate consequences for those needing abortion services. I wrote up what we know at New York:

Soon after the Supreme Court agreed to hear a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade back in May 2021, speculation began that a radical decision abolishing constitutional abortion rights not long before the midterms could affect the trajectory and outcome of those elections. “It could become a major campaign issue for supporters of both parties and rare groups of swing voters in both federal and state elections,” I said in September of that year.

And here is why, I argued, a decision reversing Roe would likely produce a net benefit for Democrats:

“Since Roe at least, anti-abortion activists and their aligned voters have been thought to be more focused on elections and motivated to turn out for them than their pro-choice counterparts. The reason is obvious if you think about it: The status quo has been largely pro-choice thanks to Roe, so all the energy associated with any movement for change has been associated with the anti-abortion cause. Pro-choice folk could rely (or so they thought) on the Supreme Court to protect their rights …

“If SCOTUS goes the whole hog and kills or seriously wounds federal abortion rights next year, the topic could become a central focus of national Democratic messaging … because the perceived status quo would switch sides.”

Well, the Court did its worst two weeks ago, and in the meantime, midterm prospects for Democrats have steadily grown darker. So while the impact of the ruling in Dobbs on short-term Democratic electoral goals is hardly among the more important consequences of the decision, it does matter in terms of a 2022 election with serious implications for all sorts of policy issues, including abortion. So, understandably, Democrats are anxiously looking at polls to determine if the road to perdition in November might take an unexpected and favorable turn.

There are two major polling questions drawing particular attention: The first is whether Dobbs may have affected the balance of opinion favoring a relatively liberal regime on abortion. And there, at least initially, it seems Dobbs has increased an already sizable pro-choice majority. One would normally wait a while before reaching such a conclusion, but what makes Dobbs unique is that the eventual decision was leaked on May 2, giving us a longer period of pro-choice anxiety to measure. And as early as May 15, NBC News was finding record-high levels of support for abortion rights, with “nearly two-thirds of Americans” opposing overturning Roe. Perhaps more importantly, there is polling evidence that both the leaked and actual Dobbs opinions have raised the salience of abortion as an issue, particularly among pro-choice voters. A Monmouth survey taken between June 23 and June 27 showed abortion going from nowhere to 5 percent (9 percent among self-identified Democrats) in a question about the “biggest concern facing your family,” far below the 33 percent registered for inflation, but still impressive before and just after Dobbs came down on June 24. And a spanking new Pew survey confirms that opponents of Dobbs feel more strongly about the matter than supporters: Of the 57 percent disapproving of Dobbs, 43 do so strongly (25 percent of the 41 percent approving of Dobbs do so strongly).

But where the rubber meets the road is whether Dobbs and the backlash to the decision can materially help Democrats in November. Analysts peering at the congressional generic ballot (typically “Which party do you want to control the U.S. House of Representatives next year?”) have discerned an apparent immediate effect.  Actually, the polls are mixed on that topic, and the durability of any Dobbs “bounce” is unclear.

As I noted recently, the non–White House party usually gains ground on the generic ballot in midterm elections as actual voting grows nigh. So the big question is whether there is anything that can change the normal dynamics, whether it’s a potentially game-changing real-world development like Dobbs, or, say, Donald Trump announcing a 2024 presidential candidacy, as some believe he will soon do.

And to be clear, there are two distinct ways in which a “Dobbs effect,” if it exists, could help Democrats. The first and most obvious is that it could keep in the Democratic ranks a significant number of suburban swing voters who voted for the Donkey Party in 2018 and 2020 but who might swing back to the GOP without Trump totally dominating the landscape and with economic issues in the forefront. The second possible effect is to boost the turnout rates of certain pro-Democratic groups of voters who often skip non-presidential elections. It could be significant, for example, that under-30 voters most intensely support abortion rights: A recent Emerson poll showed 76 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 favor congressional action to shore up reproductive rights in the wake of DobbsReturning youth turnout to anything like the levels of 2020 or even 2018 could be a very big deal for Democrats, particularly given young voters’ lack of enthusiasm for Joe Biden.

But campaigns themselves will provide the real test of whether a
Dobbs effect” is on the horizon to the benefit of Democrats. Some Democrats believe they glimpsed it in a June 28 special congressional election in Nebraska that a Republican won by a notably smaller margin than expected. But the real telltale sign will be if Democratic candidates put their money where their mouths are in talking frequently about abortion rights between now and November. Not that long ago, of course, the prevailing belief of the Democratic smart set was that the party should avoid “divisive” cultural issues like abortion and instead focus on tasty poll-tested proposals to place money in the pockets of voters. Thanks to the loss of Democratic credibility on pocketbook issues, and to the Supreme Court, that could all change. But we don’t know that just yet.

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