Some Lessons and Questions After the Kansas Abortion Referendum
1. Since the Roe v. Wade decision, the typical American’s position has been “abortion should be legally permitted for some reasons but not others.” This remains true even in many conservative-leaning states, like Kansas, where a majority of elected representatives are pro-life.
2. Neither party fully represents this view, but the Dobbs decision has abruptly shifted the terms of political debate from whether abortions should be made modestly harder to get (a somewhat popular position) to whether they should be banned almost entirely (much less popular). This puts Republicans in a riskier position than they were in before Dobbs.
3. Republicans could partially mitigate this risk by moderating their abortion positions. But the trend within the party has instead moved toward greater ideological purity. Not only are there fewer pro-choice Republican candidates than there used to be, but a growing number of pro-life Republicans now oppose carving out exceptions to legal prohibition (e.g. to protect the woman’s health) that were once considered standard doctrine within the party.
4. The abortion issue will almost certainly work to the net advantage of Democratic candidates this fall compared to an alternative timeline in which the Dobbs ruling did not occur. Dobbs forces Republicans to defend a less popular position than before, and it also provides an extra motivator for Democrats to turn out in a midterm election when they otherwise might have felt some ambivalence. How much of an advantage, however, is unclear; odds are still against it having a transformative effect on the overall outcome.
5. The overturning of Roe also makes abortion a much bigger issue in state and local politics than it ever was before. We will now start to find out what the effects of this change will be. They, too, are difficult to predict with confidence.
6. By increasing the electoral salience of abortion, an issue on which higher levels of education are associated with more liberal views, Dobbs will probably work to further increase the growing “diploma divide” separating Dem-trending college graduates from GOP-trending non-college whites. The best-educated county in Kansas is Johnson County (suburban Kansas City), where 56 percent of adults hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Johnson County voted for George W. Bush in 2004 by 23 points, for John McCain in 2008 by 9 points, and for Mitt Romney in 2012 by 17 points, but was carried by Joe Biden in 2020 with an 8-point margin over Donald Trump. It voted against the pro-life referendum on Tuesday by a margin of 68 percent to 32 percent.
7. After the unusual national focus on politics during the Trump years, it would be reasonable to expect a bit of a collective withdrawal—a “vibe shift,” perhaps—as Americans adjusted to the less aggressively newsworthy Biden presidency by spending more of their time and attention on other matters. But the remarkably high turnout rate for the Kansas referendum (held at a normally sleepy time of year for politics) raises the possibility that mass political engagement will remain at elevated levels despite Trump’s departure from office. It’s another thing to keep an eye on as we head into November.