Will Abortion Redefine the 2022 Elections?

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra | Unsplash


This was never going to be a great year for Democrats. Candidates running in 2022 have been saddled with an unpopular president, rising inflation, widespread economic discontent, and pandemic fatigue. Democratic losses in November seem predestined. For many political observers, the only question left is how bad will it get?


With news that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, it is possible that Democrats may avoid the worst fallout. The ruling would throw the decision of abortion rights back to the states, and its unpopularity with the public and could finally provide Democrats an opportunity to take the offensive and galvanize support at the polls.


While the demise of Roe v. Wade will no doubt constitute a tsunami-sized political event, it may not matter much in 2022. The hill Democrats have to climb is far too steep, and even a complete dismantling of Roe would not offset their current political liabilities.


But this is not the end of the story, but rather the beginning. Although much of our attention has focused on how Roe’s likely demise will affect the midterms, the long-term implications are far more important. If the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade, it will introduce an incredible amount of uncertainty into the political system. There are a few notable consequences that are worth considering.


Increasing Democratic Activism on Abortion

In the immediate aftermath of the leaked ruling, many pro-choice activists were initially critical of Democratic officials for paying lip service to abortion rights without making it a priority. And they had a point. Even as states introduced hundreds of restrictions on abortion, many Democrats have been loath to make the issue a priority.


That’s likely to change. Even before the Supreme Court opinion leaked, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say abortion was an important voting issue. This represents an important break from the past when conservatives were far more likely to prioritize the issue. In 2018, I argued that this change was a result of growing concern among Democrats –particularly Democratic women – that the legality of abortion was imperiled. Four years earlier, nearly half of Democratic women said it was likely abortion would be illegal in their lifetime.


Another reason for increased activism on abortion likely has to do with the changing composition of the Democratic Party. Today, college-educated women account for 28 percent of all Democratic voters, a massive increase from the late 1990s, when they made up only 12 percent of the Democratic base. And college-educated Democratic women are the demographic most likely to prioritize abortion rights – 94 percent say abortion should be legal, including more than half (56 percent) who say should be legal in all circumstances.


Still, there’s a chance this rising energy around abortion may not serve the Democratic Party’s electoral interests. Democrats still need to compete in plenty of places where pro-life positions are not liabilities. If the party is too aggressive in purging candidates who are not supportive of unrestricted access to abortion, they may find themselves on the losing end of winnable races.


Republicans Move to the Fringe

Conservatives are on the cusp of achieving a massive political – and most would argue moral –victory. Reversing Roe has been a long-time objective, especially for Christian conservatives.


But we’re already seeing signs that Republican-led legislatures may overextend themselves by passing laws that are broadly unpopular. In Louisiana, Republicans in the House advanced a bill that would treat abortion as homicide, making women criminally liable. A number of other states have adopted measures that would make no allowances for rape—an exception supported by nearly seven in 10 Americans.


For Republicans, the danger is that impassioned activists will pressure them into supporting extreme positions that are politically unpalatable. It’s one thing to identify as pro-life and quite another to vote for specific legislation that the vast majority of Americans oppose. Nearly half of Americans identify as pro-life, but only about one in ten are in favor of completely eliminating access to abortion. This would become particularly problematic for Republicans running in purple and blue states as they may be forced to adopt positions to win their respective primaries that then become a liability in a general election.


It Will Make Polarization Worse

It’s hard to imagine how abortion could make American discourse more polarizing than it is now. Few Americans were happy with the status quo, but many will like post-Roe politics even less. If Roe is overturned, the issue of abortion will become much more salient across other areas of American life. Even if many Americans would rather not think about it, the subject is going to be far more difficult to avoid.


Companies will have a difficult time staying above the fray, even if they want to. Levi Strauss & Co., for example, recently announced that it would reimburse employees’ travel costs for out-of-state health care services if they are unavailable where they live, including abortions. This is likely just the beginning. Technology companies that track personal health and location data may be drawn into criminal investigations. The abortion issue will make its way into boardrooms, forcing companies to make decisions about where to locate offices and host conferences, and how to respond to employee concerns. And corporate assistance to women seeking abortions may well result in legislative retribution at the hands of state governments.


Abortion is likely to make dating more fraught as well. Politics has become an increasingly relevant consideration in romantic relationships. Dating apps have added fuel to the fire by making it easier to screen out people with divergent political beliefs. A 2020 poll found that abortion was the most important dating dealbreaker, particularly for women. If Roe is overturned, it’s not hard to believe that the issue would become more salient.


The issue of abortion may further divide the most and least religious Americans. Although plenty of religious Americans support legal abortion, a new report finds the two groups most at odds over the issue are atheists and white evangelical Protestants.


Finally, abortion policy is going to polarize at the state level with blue states making abortion widely available while many red states will cut off access entirely. Some blue states, such as Maryland, are moving to expand access to abortion. The rise of flexible work arrangements may increase Americans’ tendency toward geographic self-sorting, with Republicans and Democrats each heading to more ideologically friendly territory. Earlier this year, Redfin predicted that “people will vote with their feet, moving to places that align with their politics.” Abortion may supercharge this trend.


Americans were never going to come to a satisfactory resolution on the abortion question. We’re too polarized for there to be a meaningful median position. And yet, our inability to find common ground will put us on a trajectory that seems likely to produce the worst of all possible outcomes.


Daniel Cox

Daniel Cox, PhD, is director of the Survey Center on American Life and senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.


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