On Monday, Politico published a leaked Supreme Court opinion showing that the court will likely overturn Roe v. Wade, which made access to abortion a constitutional right. Many political observers suggested that overturning the 49-year precedent could prompt Democrats to mobilize massively for the midterms or significantly push liberal and independent women toward the Democratic Party.
Such a dramatic shift would be welcome news for the party. Current polls suggest Democrats will do poorly in the upcoming elections, given their base voters’ lack of enthusiasm and shifting attitudes in the political coalition that helped elect Joe Biden in 2020 and drove the November 2018 blue wave.
November will reveal whether those predictions come true. Meanwhile, here’s what we can learn from social science research about how overturning Roe could affect the 2022 midterm elections.
Lessons from the #MeToo movement
One way in which Democrats could turn the tide for the upcoming midterms is to mobilize supportive female voters. And in the past, focusing on women’s issues has both activated the Democratic base and brought more women to vote for the Democratic Party.
For instance, the #MeToo movement helped Democrats in the 2018 midterms. The movement, started by Tarana Burke in 2006 to highlight sexual violence against women, exploded in public discussions during 2018 after media coverage of sexual harassment and assault allegations against media tycoon Harvey Weinstein, and was amplified again when Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault. Research found that the movement was associated with the mobilization of women in the Democratic Party’s base, including Democratic women and women with high levels of group consciousness, or a sense that women as a group face similar challenges.
Moreover, other research suggested that when parties take ownership of women’s issues, as the Democratic Party did with the #MeToo movement, they can attract higher levels of women’s support overall. Some analysis showed that the gender gap in women’s preference for the Democratic Party was larger in 2018 than it had been in the previous 25 years.
While these studies do not take into account differences in the race of the respondent, some of our own research found that these shifts happen primarily among White women. Black women tend to be much more stable in their pro-Democratic Party activism and partisanship.
Criminalizing abortion may improve the Democratic Party’s standing with women
Overturning Roe may well have a similar effect on turnout and partisanship this fall, depending on what happens between now and then. Research has found that targeted outreach can mobilize female voters when access to abortion is threatened.
In a recent study published in Political Behavior, Katherine Haenschen found that Facebook users presented with online advertisements focusing on abortion rights and reproductive health in Texas were 1.6 percentage points more likely to vote than Facebook users in the same state who were not exposed to these advertisements. That was especially true for women.
Attacks on abortion rights boost women’s engagement in politics for numerous reasons. First, the decision to overturn Roe would take away a right that most U.S. women assumed was settled law throughout their lifetimes. Previous studies demonstrate that the threat of policy change that results in losing something can profoundly motivate citizens to vote. This is particularly true if it is combined with one or more groups’ efforts to mobilize those citizens to vote.
Additionally, the move to strike down Roe contradicts what several recently confirmed justices suggested publicly and privately to U.S. senators during their confirmation process. The justices’ apparent reversal on these public statements has many people concerned that other rights could be withdrawn, as well, including marriage for same-sex couples or women’s access to birth control. Losing established rights sparks fear — which is a strong motivator for voting. The Supreme Court’s potential decision overturning Roe gives Democrats an opportunity to campaign on what else voters could lose if they sit out the fall elections or vote for the opposing party.
Finally, Black women face significantly greater obstacles in obtaining reproductive care and disproportionately live in the states surest to restrict abortion if Roe falls. Focusing on how this decision will hurt Black women in particular could mobilize this critical Democratic voter block.
What about Republican voters?
Of course, overturning Roe might also motivate women who support restricting abortion. For example, Cindy D. Kam and Allison M. Archer found that the #MeToo movement also mobilized Republicans who held more traditional attitudes and scored high on a sexism scale, making them more likely to vote — presumably for Republicans. Ending legal abortion has long been a top political priority for many conservative women’s organizations. Overturning Roe may help these groups mobilize antiabortion women to put Republicans back in charge of the House and Senate.
But evidence suggests that Roe’s reversal may not lead to high Republican turnout this fall. When political movements score big legal or legislative victories, they often struggle to keep supporters engaged. For example, the feminist movement lost momentum after passing the 19th Amendment because, for many suffrage activists, getting the right to vote for White women was enough. Social movements research has found over and over again that when movements are victorious, supporters seem less likely to continue their activism or to focus on issues they consider resolved.
In other words, conservative religious women who have cared so much about ending abortion rights may claim victory and go home. If that happens, the Democrats would gain a larger portion of the women’s vote this fall, improving their chances.
We still don’t know what opinion the Supreme Court will issue, of course. Similarly, the future for voters, especially women, remains unclear. For the past several decades, abortion has rarely been a decisive issue for voters. The Democratic Party will still have an uphill battle to retain control of the House and Senate, especially if inflation does not abate. But a policy reversal of this magnitude is likely to shift the political terrain in unpredictable ways.
Kelsy Kretschmer (@kelsykretschmer) is an associate professor of sociology at Oregon State University and the author of “Fighting for NOW: Diversity and Discord in the National Organization for Women” (University of Minnesota Press, 2019)
Leah Ruppanner (@leahruppanner) is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Melbourne and author of “Motherlands: How States Push Mothers out of Employment” (Temple University Press, 2020).