In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Democratic strategists insisted the 2022 midterms had fundamentally shifted.
Rather than an election about the economy – focused on rising gas prices and inflation – they argued the election would now be a referendum on abortion rights and the Republicans working to limit women’s choices.
Democrats put their money where their mouth was.
In the month of October alone, Democratic campaigns and groups spent $214 million on broadcast TV ads that mentioned abortion, according to a CNN analysis of AdImpact data. That accounted for nearly half (45%) of all the ad money spent by the party over that time.
And it dwarfed ad spending on other topics. The next biggest issue for Democrats was crime, with the party spending $79 million on the issue, less than 17% of its overall ad expenditures last month.
With just six days left in the election, it appears as though that gamble may have been a massive mistake.
In a new CNN national poll, 51% of likely voters said that the economy was the most important issue in deciding their vote for Congress. Abortion ranked second, but with just 15% naming it as the most important issue.
That is consistent with lots of other polling in which the economy is, by far, the leading issue on voters’ minds.
Which should worry Democrats, who spent less than $68 million on ads mentioning taxation and less than $18 million on ads about inflation in October. By contrast, Republicans spent nearly $144 million on ads referencing taxation over the same period – the party’s top issue area – and nearly $77 million on ads mentioning inflation.
President Joe Biden’s White House is trying to turn its messaging to address the economy.
“@POTUS’ top priority is to lower costs for the American people,” tweeted the official White House account on Wednesday afternoon. “He’s taking on Big Pharma to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug costs, capping seniors’ drug costs at the pharmacy, and lowering health insurance premiums for people under the Affordable Care Act.”
All of the above is not to say that abortion isn’t an important issue in the election – especially for the base of the Democratic Party. Among likely Democratic voters in the CNN poll, 29% named abortion as their top issue, while 27% chose the economy.
If Democratic base turnout goes through the roof, the decision to focus so much ad spending on abortion may look like money well spent.
But the data on the primacy of the economy in voters’ minds at least raises the possibility that Democrats overestimated how big of an issue abortion would be in terms of winning over persuadable voters.
The Point: Elections are about choices. Democrats may have made the wrong one.