The Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade in arguably its biggest decision in at least a decade. The practical consequences of eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion are enormous. You might think, therefore, that the political fallout would be too.
But a look at the political landscape and recent surveys reveals that the midterm impact, while not totally clear, may not be as big as people think. Any effects on November’s midterm elections are more likely to be felt at the state level than in the race for Congress.
When it was leaked in May that the court was likely to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide, there was little indication that it had changed voters’ minds about the midterms. An average of major polls found Republicans ahead by 3 points on the generic congressional ballot before the leak and by 3 points afterward.
The same lack of movement was seen when examining enthusiasm. CNN/SSR polling found Republican voters about 10 points more enthusiastic than Democrats to vote in the midterms both before and after the leak of the draft opinion. This is key because midterms see lower turnout than presidential elections and can often turn on who comes out to vote.
One big reason why the potential ending of Roe didn’t move voters at the time is that it wasn’t the top issue. An ABC News/Ipsos poll in early June found that only 12% said abortion was the most important issue to their midterm vote. That ranked well behind the economy, inflation and gasoline combined at 48%.
It’s tough to get people to care about something else when they’re facing record gasoline prices and inflation.
From something hypothetical to reality
Of course, all of this polling was conducted before we knew for sure that Roe would be overturned, and it was far from clear that voters believed it would be.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll taken after the leak last month indicated that only 22% thought Roe was very likely to be overturned. A plurality (42%) thought it was somewhat likely, and 30% of Americans didn’t believe it was likely.
So it is plausible that the political fallout could be larger now that Roe has fallen. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that 62% of Americans supported Roe. This included nearly 90% of Democrats, more than 60% of independents and nearly 40% of Republicans.
No matter what poll you look at, it’s clear the Supreme Court’s latest decision is an unpopular one.
Indeed, there were already signs that support for abortion rights was hardening since the leak of the draft opinion. While support for Roe has been fairly consistent over the years, more Americans identified as pro-choice (55%) in Gallup’s May poll than at any point since the mid-1990s. And for the first time ever, a majority (52%) said abortion was morally acceptable.
This could indicate that Roe’s overturning could be more important to voters than previously assumed, which would benefit Democrats. Democrats need a boost in enthusiasm from their own voters, and they also are trailing among independents. Independents were 17 points more likely to say their abortion views aligned more with Democrats than Republicans in CNN/SSRS polling.
Still, it’s far from clear that abortion can come anywhere close to overtaking economic concerns as the top issue for voters.
Additionally, I would be remiss to not note that things look dire for Democrats right now in congressional races. They’re facing their worst deficit on the generic congressional ballot at this point in any midterm cycle since 1938. They’re looking at a loss in House seats that could be north of 20, if not 30, seats, when a net loss of just four seats would cost them their narrow majority.
There would really need to be a major shift in the polling for Democrats’ House majority to be saved. And even in the equally divided 50-50 Senate, Democrats face an uphill battle.
The best the party can hope for is limiting its losses in the House and hoping against hope it can hold on to the Senate.
The maximum impact
But the ending of Roe sends abortion decisions back to the states – and the impact on gubernatorial and state legislative elections this year could be tremendous.
An average of polls by The New York Times since 2012 showed that residents in most states (34) believed abortion should be always or mostly legal. Included in these 34 states were Georgia and Kansas, where opinions on abortion opinion are tightly divided, as well as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where a clear majority believe abortion should be at least mostly legal. All of these states are hosting key gubernatorial races this year.
Expect Democrats to run hard on abortion rights in these states, as they’ll likely not want to run on the economy. Republicans, after all, are much more trusted to deal with the economy and related issues (i.e., gas prices and inflation).
A split between how voters go in federal and state elections would not be a surprise, considering there are Democratic governors in reliably red Kansas, Kentucky and Louisiana, and there are Republican ones in deep-blue Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont.
Even this year, we’ve witnessed crime be a major issue in municipal elections without really registering as a federal issue.
The bottom line is this: The ending of Roe v. Wade likely won’t affect the outcome of the federal elections this year. It adds a wrinkle of uncertainty, but Republicans are still favored. State elections could be where the real impact of this Supreme Court decision is truly felt.