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Five Reasons Abortion May Not Deliver for Democrats

There are new restrictions on abortion in Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Texas. Three of those states have been competitive in recent presidential elections, and the fourth, Texas, has shown signs of shifting toward the Democrats. Yet in all four states, the Republican governors who signed those laws are cruising to re-election.

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center, strategists in both parties said it would harm Republicans in the midterm elections. A pro-choice backlash would rescue Democrats from what had been shaping up to be a punishing set of defeats. Democrats are devoting more of their ads to abortion than to any other subject.

 Yet so far, “Roevember” doesn’t seem to be shaping up quite the way Democrats hoped. Here are a few possible reasons why.

Pundits overread a few election results. In August, Kansas voters overwhelmingly defeated a ballot initiative getting rid of the state’s version of Roe v. Wade. Because the state is heavily Republican, this result was widely held to portend setbacks for anti-abortion Republican candidates. But voters weren’t picking one candidate over another; they were voting directly on abortion. The midterms are nothing like this. Votes for members of Congress and governors are not referenda on one issue, and there will be abortion referenda in very few places.

Democrats did better than expected in some special elections this summer, too, fueling the Roevember hype. Special elections usually have low turnout, and in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision, Democrats were probably more motivated to vote. But those elections are not usually highly predictive of election results in November, when turnout is usually higher.

Abortion views have a geographic skew. Neither side of the abortion debate has enough power in Washington to pass national laws that enact its vision. The practical effect of the Supreme Court decision was to make abortion policy vary by state. In the states where legal abortion has the most support, then, it also faces very little legal threat. Where it has the greatest likelihood of restriction, it doesn’t have much support. That pattern limits the potential size of backlash.

The public is ambivalent about abortion. Many polls appear to show solid majorities for legal abortion. Polls found public support for Roe and opposition to Dobbs. Gallup routinely finds that less than a quarter of the public, and sometimes much less, thinks abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. But Gallup also found that 45% of the public thinks abortion should either be illegal or else legal “only in a few circumstances” — and that was in a poll conducted immediately after the news of Dobbs leaked. (The previous year, 53% of the public took one of the restrictive views.) Which means …

Democrats have vulnerabilities on the issue too. Even some analysts sympathetic to Democrats are wondering why so many of their candidates have staked out the extreme position that abortion should not be restricted even toward the end of pregnancy. But the Democratic coalition inhibits them from meeting the public that way.

For decades, the Supreme Court required states to allow abortions even in late stages of pregnancy if those abortions were considered necessary for mental health. The most recent CDC estimate finds that 1% of abortions take place after 20 weeks; using the Alan Guttmacher Institute’s estimate for the total number of abortions, that works out to about 9,000 a year. The limited evidence available suggests that most of the women seeking these abortions, to quote a 2013 paper, “are not doing so for reasons of fetal abnormality or life endangerment.”

The upshot is that accepting a ban on abortion late in pregnancy, even with exceptions for severe medical complications, would mean a partial retreat from the expansive abortion right of the past. The activist groups most committed to abortion access are not willing to do that, in part because they fear it would be a slippery slope to bans on abortion earlier in pregnancy. (Which, of course, opponents of abortion hope it would be.) Democratic politicians have been unwilling to cross those groups. And that’s given Republicans an opportunity to deny the Democrats the center ground they would like to claim.

The political and economic fundamentals are very hard to overcome. The president’s party usually loses in midterm elections. That’s especially true when two related conditions obtain: the president is faring poorly in the polls, and people are unhappy about the state of the economy. Last summer, Democrats thought abortion would help them defy these trends. Now it looks like they have underestimated the strength of the trends themselves while overestimating the power of the abortion issue.

We won’t know for certain until the results are in, of course. Voter turnout is hard to predict, especially with an electorate that has changed as quickly as this one. Yet as it now stands, in the first national elections of the post-Roe era, the party of Roe is losing.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Abortion Is the Big X Factor in the Midterms: Joshua Green

• Make Early Abortions More Accessible: Sarah Green Carmichael

• The ‘Right to Life’ Will End Up Killing Women: Kathryn Edwards

• How Will Roe’s Fall Affect Politics?: Jonathan Bernstein

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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