The Salience of Abortion Rights, Which Helped Democrats Mightily in 2022, Has Started to Fade
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The salience of abortion rights, which surged in the electorate following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and helped Democrats deliver the best midterm performance for a president's party in 20 years, has begun to fade across the country, Morning Consult congressional district-level data shows.
Whether the Democratic Party can revive that political energy on an issue that helped them exceed expectations last year in the upcoming 2024 presidential contest is a wide-open question — though many on the left argue the Republican Party is doing some of the work for them.
“I can’t say today if it’s going to be the No. 1 issue in races across the country, but Republicans are working really hard to keep it there, frankly, by trying to take these rights away,” said Abby Curran Horrell, executive director of House Majority PAC, the largest super PAC aiding House Democrats.
Where abortion has lost salience, and where it hasn’t
Across the country, issues such as abortion, contraception and equal pay are the top concern for 9% of voters, down from heights reached by Election Day in November, when 14% of voters in all districts — and 15% of those in the most competitive ones — prioritized those issues over all others.
Those figures are still elevated from 6% of all voters who ranked the issue set as their top voting concern just before the Supreme Court’s draft ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization was revealed by Politico on the evening of May 2.
Salience of Abortion, Birth Control Has Declined at District Level Since the 2022 Midterms
The issue set is currently most prominent among voters in safe territory for Democrats, which for the purposes of this analysis is defined as districts the Cook Political Report’s 2022 Partisan Voter Index rates as favoring the left by 11 percentage points or more, as well as toss-up districts, defined as those where no party has greater than a 5-point advantage.
By November, the issue’s salience reached its highest point around the midterms in solidly blue enclaves: In Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal’s perch in Seattle or Ayanna Pressley’s in Boston, more than 1 in 5 voters said abortion was among their top concerns around Election Day.
Those districts weren’t alone. Abortion also surged as a motivator in toss-up districts in Michigan, where voters were considering an ultimately successful ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state’s constitution.
The District-Level Salience of Abortion and Birth Control Among Voters
One in 5 voters ranked issues such as abortion as their top concern last November in the state’s competitive 7th District, where Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin fended off Republican rival Tom Barrett with a better margin of victory there than President Joe Biden received in 2020. A similar story was true in the state’s 3rd District, an open-seat contest where Democrat Hillary Scholten beat Republican John Gibbs, who was hammered for past comments that he was “100% pro-life in all cases.”
But if the Slotkin and Scholten victories showed how an elevated focus on abortion can help Democratic candidates, Michigan also highlighted the limits of the approach. In the state’s open 10th District race, where 18% ranked abortion, birth control and equal pay as their top voting concern, Republican John James narrowly eked out a victory in one of the state's tightest battlegrounds.
Rachel Sweet, an organizer who helped lead successful abortion rights ballot campaigns last year in Kansas and Kentucky, said ballot measures — though universally successful for supporters of abortion rights last year — were not a panacea or “magical turnout vehicles” for candidates who support abortion rights.
“What we saw in 2022 was those types of measures being on the ballot don't universally help candidates,” she said, noting Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s easy victory where she was working in Kentucky. “But in some states like Michigan, you can make an argument that being on the ballot probably helped Gretchen Whitmer and other candidates win.”
Where abortion policy is on the move ahead of 2024
In one of their first acts after taking control of the House in January, Republicans passed two measures meant to highlight support for the anti-abortion movement while stopping short of advancing a federal restriction, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) proposed 15-week abortion ban that divided voters ahead of the midterms.
Given the divided Congress, the policy attempts have fallen on state legislatures, which are considering dozens of measures this year to ban or restrict abortion access, according to The Guttmacher Institute — and, in some cases, to limit ballot proposals that would put them before voters next year.
These new Republican efforts come on top of abortion restrictions already on the books, which have prompted a string of emotionally gripping stories about women seeking the medical procedure, such as the Texas woman who said her doctor told her she couldn’t end her unviable pregnancy due to the state’s laws — or the women there who are being sued for wrongful death after helping a friend obtain abortion medication. Advocates hope those stories will help keep the issue top of mind for voters concerned about the topic.
“Frankly, we are seeing the horrific impact of these bans with terrible stories every day of what women and their doctors are enduring,” said Laura Chapin, a Democratic strategist in Colorado, where she’s worked to advance abortion rights. “The impact of Republicans overturning Roe isn't hypothetical.”
But across the map, abortion’s salience as a voter’s No. 1 issue has receded. Intuitively, it’s dropped the least in places where it did not increase much in the first place such — largely non-Republican territory across the South. Still, it remains higher than it was before the Dobbs decision across the country, including in safe Democratic territory and toss-up districts such as Democratic Rep. Angie Craig’s in Minnesota’s Twin City suburbs and competitive districts won by Republicans in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
Surveys conducted Nov. 1-8, 2022, and Feb. 17-26, 2023, among registered voters. Morning Consult used multilevel regression with post-stratification to produce the congressional district-level data.
Sweet said she isn’t sure abortion rights advocates can “replicate the outrage that was sparked by the Dobbs decision” given the visceral feelings associated with its proximity to the midterm contests. But she said 2022-style outrage may not be necessary, either, if Democrats can use it as part of a larger argument that their rivals are “extreme,” from abortion to the GOP’s posture toward the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
“What’s emerging as the mainstream position of Republicans — that there should not be any abortions — is really out of step with people’s values,” she said.
Whether all Republicans support an outright ban on abortion (many don’t) isn’t quite the point. Supporters of abortion rights recall the not-so-distant history of being painted with a broad brush as backers of the procedure up to fetal viability (many didn’t), and believe they can give Republicans a taste of their own Roe-era medicine in tying them to unpopular abortion policies now that the Supreme Court has put the ball in their court.
Horrell, whose super PAC leveraged roughly 40% of its campaign advertising attention on abortion issues in 2022, said the presidential contest presents a problem for Republican candidates in a post-Roe world, given that down-ballot candidates often have a tough time separating themselves from the eventual GOP presidential candidate.
“The top of the ticket is going to be a MAGA extremist who opposes abortion rights. It’s going to be hard to differentiate themselves from that,” she said.
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser said that casting the GOP as anti-abortion was an effective tactic against Republicans during the 2022 midterms, but mainly because of the skittishness by a number of Republican candidates who, she said, failed to fully engage on the issue.
“There was definitely a hesitancy and a fear of death in politics,” she said. “Waiting for everyone else to say something first means they got to label you first as an extremist.”
Among those who have expressed some nervousness about the topic this year is former President Donald Trump, the GOP’s 2024 front-runner whose Supreme Court nominations in his first term helped pave the way for the long-sought conservative policy victory. In January, he took issue with Republicans he accused of backing abortion bans with “NO Exceptions” for his party’s underperformance in the midterms to try to distance himself from it.
That prompted pushback from abortion opponents, who argue that Republicans should make their stances on the issue clear — something Dannenfelser thinks the party’s federal candidates, including those she has talked to who are running for president or considering it, will do.
Dannenfelser said Republicans should feel comfortable embracing gestational limits, floating something like the 15-week proposal, and urged them to define their stance before Democrats do.
“The thing that really chilled our candidates was silence and allowing themselves to be for a federal ban. That’s what all the headlines said: They didn't say what type, they said a ban,” she said. “Quiet meant that they got that label, and they earned it.”
Eli Yokley is Morning Consult’s U.S. politics analyst. Eli joined Morning Consult in 2016 from Roll Call, where he reported on House and Senate campaigns after five years of covering state-level politics in the Show Me State while studying at the University of Missouri in Columbia, including contributions to The New York Times, Politico and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter @eyokley. Interested in connecting with Eli to discuss his analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].