Why abortion may now motivate Democrats more than Republicans


Abortion has long motivated Republicans as a political issue. But following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in early September not to block new Texas law banning most abortions once an ultrasound can detect heart activity, typically around six weeks after the onset of pregnancy, many argued that Democrats could become more motivated by reproductive rights. As a Republican pollster recently told The Associated Press, “This will be a very motivating issue for women who have generally not been pro-choice single issue voters.”

Tracking data from The Economist / YouGov seems to support this view. In every weekly survey since February, respondents have been asked about the importance of abortion, and as we see in the graph below, the question has become increasingly important to Democrats and less important to them. Republicans since.

Throughout most of 2021, Trump voters were in fact more likely than Biden voters to say abortion is a “very important” issue to them. This matched the long history of abortion opponents who saw the issue as more important than its supporters. But, as the graph above shows, that trend was dramatically reversed after the Texas abortion ban went into effect. On average over the five weekly polls conducted by The Economist / YouGov since then, 51% of Biden supporters called abortion a very important problem, compared to just 39% of Trump supporters. The Morning Consult poll shows that the proportion of female Democrats who said issues such as abortion, contraception and pay equity are essential when voting for a federal office nearly doubled immediately after the ban on Texas.

Democrats were also almost twice as likely as Republicans to have “heard a lot” about restrictive new abortion laws in Texas and Mississippi (49% vs. 26%, respectively in an Economist / YouGov poll from March 3. October 5). This is likely due to the limited airtime the Texas law got from both Republican politicians and conservative media like Fox News. Consider that Fox News mentioned “abortion” 392 times in September, compared to 1,326 and 2,969 mentions on CNN and MSNBC, respectively. Republican politicians and the conservative media apparently fear the potential backlash of the unpopular Texas law.

The fact that Democrats are both more likely to say abortion is important to them and to have heard a lot about Texas law fits well with a familiar pattern in public opinion research: Americans whose political commitments are threatened are responding by prioritizing these issues more and more. This has happened repeatedly over the past decades in high-profile public policy debates, and existing research even suggests that political threats can mobilize voter turnout.

We have seen a similar phenomenon during the efforts of the administration of former President Donald Trump to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. In a poll conducted by The Economist / YouGov a week before the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton voters and Trump voters were also likely to say health care was a “very important” issue (76% and 75%, respectively). But as Trump and the Republican majority in Congress pushed to repeal Obamacare in the first year of his presidency, Democrats and Republicans have increasingly diverged over the importance of the issue. As of the end of April 2017, healthcare was a huge issue among 85% of Clinton voters compared to just 67% of Trump supporters. This is telling, as Democratic voters continued to prioritize healthcare as their biggest issue in the 2018 midterm election, with Democrats more than twice as likely as Republicans to do so.

Whether Democrats continue to prioritize abortion will inevitably depend in large part on how the Supreme Court rules next year on the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It also remains to be seen how new restrictions on reproductive rights will affect the 2022 midterm – threats to the health care status quo helped Democrats in 2018 and hurt them in 2010. But whatever the decision is. In court, the public’s strong opinions on abortion make it an exceptionally powerful issue in American politics – an issue that voters have even switched parties on in the past. Any increased importance of abortion to Democratic voters will therefore likely be a boon to the party’s unlikely chances of retaining its weak majorities in Congress after the 2022 midterm election.

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