The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The left is counting on an abortion backlash that may never come

Antiabortion activists rally in front of the Supreme Court in January. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Pool)
5 min

Democrats have long assumed that if Republicans ever managed to overturn Roe v. Wade, they would come to regret it. This was not an unwarranted assumption. Poll after poll shows that strong majorities of Americans think abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances and want Roe v. Wade to be left intact.

“By removing the issue from the policy arena,” wrote legal analyst Benjamin Wittes in 2005, “the Supreme Court has prevented abortion rights supporters from winning a debate in which public opinion favors them.” The dominant metaphor cast Republicans in this scenario as “the dog that caught the car” — at last in possession of the object of their desire, with nothing but grief to come of it.

Yet here we are, and things don’t actually look so bad for Republicans. A draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe leaked last week, but a poll taken by CNN after the news broke showed the GOP running seven points ahead of Democrats on the generic ballot, which measures which party voters want to control Congress.

Perhaps voters simply aren’t paying attention, or haven’t had time to grapple with the implications? Well, perhaps — but what about Texas?

Last year, Texas effectively outlawed abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Now, Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who signed the restrictive bill into law, is running well ahead of Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke. It’s hard to argue that Texas voters are unaware; the law has been hotly debated and has seriously impacted abortion access. But so far, it just doesn’t seem to be moving many votes.

At first blush, this seems positively astonishing, given how central abortion has become to U.S. party politics. Yet it is actually pretty easy to explain in terms of three factors: polarization, power and place.

Polarization on this issue is obvious: An ardent core of activists on both sides has divided the parties cleanly on abortion and turned it into a litmus test for politicians. Republicans propose bans with minimal exceptions, while Democrats, even in red and purple states, struggle to name a single restriction they would support.

Because of this, the activists can’t affect elections much: They are already voting exclusively and regularly for one party or the other. The best the parties can try to do is to turn out a few more of their activists than the other side manages. The big hope has always been to move the less-polarized middle, but it’s starting to look as though this issue just doesn’t have that power.

“Power” is another name for what political scientists call “voter intensity,” which explains why many issues that poll well, such as stricter handgun controls, never seem to go anywhere. While a lot of people care a little about gun control, in most cases, it’s not their No. 1 issue, or even No. 10. Gun owners, by contrast, often become highly focused single-issue voters. Politicians, understandably, are more responsive to those who actually vote on the issue.

That’s not the case with abortion, where there is a lot of intensity on both sides. But if anything there is more on the pro-life side, so intensity doesn’t help Democrats here, either. And the middle just doesn’t seem to be getting any more intense, even with Roe in the balance. Possibly because people in the middle understand the effect of place: For vast numbers of them, while they may hate what other states are doing, their local abortion law will probably be something they can accept.

If Roe falls, abortion will most likely be thrown back to the states, since the politics of the filibuster make a national ban unlikely. In Kentucky, where 57 percent of voters want abortion to be illegal in all or most cases, that probably means a pretty strict ban. In Massachusetts, where 74 percent think it should be legal all or most of the time, abortion access will likely be unfettered.

Moreover, the states that are strongly pro-life also tend to be the states where abortion is already relatively uncommon. So a ban in pro-life Kentucky will prove much less disruptive than it would in pro-choice New York, where almost five times as many abortions are performed per 1,000 reproductive-age women.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be controversy. In states where the electorate is close to evenly split, asymmetric intensity could produce extreme laws that breed a backlash even from lukewarm voters. For that matter, even in deep-red states, there are undoubtedly limits to how many restrictions the electorate will support, and Republicans seem intent on testing them.

But it does explain why the current reaction is so much more muted than it seems like it ought to be. As long as Roe holds on, abortion will remain at the center of electoral politics. But should Roe fall, polarization, power and place may push it just as forcefully to the side of the stage.

Abortion access in America

Tracking abortion access in the U.S.: After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, the legality of abortion is left to individual states. The Post is tracking states where abortion is legal, banned or under threat.

Abortion pills: The Justice Department appealed a Texas judge’s decision that would block approval of the abortion pill mifepristone. The Supreme Court decided to retain full access to mifepristone as the appeal proceeds. Here’s an explanation of what happens next in the abortion pill case.

Post-Roe America: With Roe overturned, women who had secret abortions before Roe v. Wade felt compelled to speak out. Other women who were seeking abortions while living in states with strict abortion bans also shared their experiences with The Post through calls, text messages and other documentation. Here are photos and stories from across America since the reversal of Roe v. Wade.