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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Dems Can Profit from Lessons of the Kansas Abortion Vote

Michael Tesler explains “Why Abortion May Be A Winning Issue For Democrats” at FiveThirtyEight:

On the one hand, public opinion on whether abortions should generally be legal or illegal hasn’t changed much since the Supreme Court decided in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to end the constitutional right to abortion earlier this summer. In fact, daily tracking polls from Civiqs show that the share of registered voters who think abortion should be legal has held steady at 57-58 percent throughout the past year — even though there have been mounting restrictions on reproductive rights.

But the relative stability of the topline numbers masks significant changes in the scenarios under which Democrats, independents and Republicans now think that abortion should be permitted or banned — shifts that speak in part to why abortion is becoming such a powerful wedge issue for the Democratic Party.

But Tesler also notes a significant uptick in the percentages of poll respondents who believe abortion should always be legal with no restrictions

For starters, there is evidence that Democrats are gravitating toward supporting unfettered abortion rights….Democrats who think abortion should always be legal now outnumber their counterparts who say it should be mostly legal by a nearly two-to-one margin (59 percent to 32 percent)….The same uptick appears in a slightly different question from weekly tracking surveys by YouGov/The Economist. Shortly before a draft of the Dobbs decision was leaked and obtained by Politico in early May, only 42 percent of voters who cast their ballots for President Biden in 2020 agreed with the following statement: “Abortion should always be legal. There should be no restrictions on abortion.”1 But that share has now grown to between 49 percent and 54 percent in all six of the surveys YouGov/The Economist conducted since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

It’s not just Democrats either. Independents are also moving toward supporting unrestricted abortion access. The share of unaffiliated voters who think abortion should be legal in all cases has increased by 5 percentage points over the past year in Civiqs’s daily tracking poll, while the data from YouGov/The Economist reveals an even sharper surge. Just 17 percent of independents thought there should be no restrictions on abortion in the April 9-12 YouGov/The Economist poll, but in the six weekly surveys they conducted since Dobbs became the law of the land, that number among independents has climbed to an average of 29 percent.

Meanwhile, there isn’t a huge shift in the share of Republicans saying abortion should be legal in all circumstances, but they are increasingly likely to say that abortion should be legal in most circumstances. What’s more, the share of Republicans who said abortion should be illegal in all cases has decreased from 24 percent in February to a record low of 18 percent in Civiqs’s daily tracking poll. That said, a majority of Republicans, 59 percent, still think abortion should be illegal in most cases.

“Overall, though,” Tesler writes, “the shift in attitudes on abortion post-Dobbs increasingly favors Democrats. Indeed, one reason abortion is becoming such a potent wedge issue for the party is that it increasingly unites its base, and independents are also closer to Democrats on this issue than Republicans…Even in a dark-red state like Kansas, far more registered voters support abortion always being legal than support it always being illegal (by 25 percent to 11 percent, respectively, in Civiqs’s state polling data).” Tesler notes further,

These results are consistent with a long line of political science research that shows how threats and anger are often more motivating when it comes to people taking political action. They also dovetail nicely with more recent research on how the public reacts negatively to changes to the status quo. In fact, negative reactions to unpopular policy changes may have even affected two of the past three midterm-election outcomes, as threats to the health care status quo helped Democrats in 2018 and hurt them back in 2010.

Abortion has all the elements, then, of a particularly potent wedge issue for the Democratic Party. Democrats are increasingly unified and motivated to return to the status quo of legal abortions under Roe — a constitutional right that most Americans had long taken for granted. Republicans, meanwhile, are more divided and demobilized by an issue that has historically rallied its base. And independents are closer to Democrats on abortion, especially in states where Republican lawmakers have passed overwhelmingly unpopular abortion bans without exceptions for rape and incest.

The way the Kansas ballot initiative was framed as a radical, forced pregnancy/human rights take-away made it easier for the pro-choice movement. Harold Meyerson puts the Kansas vote into this historical/ideological perspective at The American Prospect:

What the Republicans failed to realize, what the Supreme Court’s partisan theocrats failed to grasp, was that their own cultural values increasingly were at odds with the basic tenets of modernity, democracy, classical liberalism, and the Enlightenment. Living in the surround-sound world of Fox News, talk radio, and far-right social media, they failed to gauge how repulsive the world they wish to create is to a majority of Americans, and to a supermajority of young Americans….it may be that their racism, sexism, homophobia, assault-weapon infatuation, and primitive religiosity targets so wide a spectrum of Americans that no campaign of voter suppression can encompass all the Americans they’ve threatened, or deter all the enemies they’ve made. It was the good Republican middle-class suburbs of Kansas City that doomed their anti-choice amendment last night. Does the GOP have to keep them away from the polls, too?

You take away Americans’ established rights at your own peril, as Kansans made very clear last night.

If Democrats can keep these winning frames in mind in characterizing their opponents, it could serve them well in the midterm elections. Republican candidates can’t fix this by the midterms. They don’t have the understanding or the time to do a credible flip-flop, and they have already said too much. What they will do, is try to distract. “But…but…but, inflation.” It’s up to Democratic campaigns to make sure the public doesn’t forget which party is radically extreme on this fundamental issue of personal health rights.

One comment on “How Dems Can Profit from Lessons of the Kansas Abortion Vote

  1. Victor on

    Democrats should support further moves to provide pregnant women and their families with the kind of tax incentives and welfare access that many GOP states are proposing. WIC is a good example of how Democrats have already done this.

    Democrats should also focus on better funding for foster care and adoption services.

    They need to put more emphasis on the supporting “women if they want to carry pregnancies to term but not raise them” part of the equation.


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