Ahead of the midterms, pollsters and strategists and — yes, journalists — were obsessed with voters' top issues. In poll after poll, including polling at NPR, voters reported inflation to be the most important issue. Despite this, a lot of people do not vote with a single issue top-of-mind, and that makes it hard to know how much abortion swayed the midterms.
This year's midterms were certainly unusual — when the president's approval is below 50 percent (as President Biden's is), their party loses 43 House seats in midterm elections, on average. This year, Democratic losses may be in the single digits. As a result, less than six months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, both sides are working to figure out how big a part abortion played in the midterms.
Polls may not predict what drives decision-making
First things first — the usefulness of polls in saying exactly how much people factored abortion into their voting is extremely limited. It's true that polls regularly showed Democrats caring more about the topic this year than Republicans, which makes sense in the wake of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe. It's also true there were voters who said the topic of abortion got them out to vote.
The effect was probably much more complicated though, says Sarah Longwell, founder of the Republican Accountability Project, which opposes Republicans who deny the 2020 election results. She explained a pattern she often saw in swing voter focus groups she ran.
"You say, 'OK, what issues are on your mind?' They say, 'inflation, the economy, crime, supply chain.' That's what they'd say up top," Longwell said.
But then, abortion would come up later: "When you get to the vote choice, like, 'Who do you want to vote for, [Arizona Democratic Senate candidate] Mark Kelly or [Republican] Blake Masters?' People would say, 'Oh, I'm not voting for Blake Masters. His position on abortion is insane.' And that theme would repeat itself with Adam Laxalt in Nevada, with Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, with Tudor Dixon in Michigan, where I think abortion played a huge role."
One way to read this is that abortion was not necessarily top of mind, but it was a prominent data point supporting a narrative that some Republicans were too extreme. That's how Democratic strategist Tom Bonier sees it.
"My general theory on this is that Dobbs really focused and crystallized these other issues that weren't really resonating," he said. "When you think of sort of just the general narrative on democracy and the sanctity of our electoral process, Democrats were talking about a lot, but it wasn't really making a dent in the numbers. And then Dobbs happens. And I think it made this argument of Republican extremism more real to voters. It connected the dots."
Voter registration gives some clues, but the wait for data continues
Exit polls have been notoriously messy in recent years, so it will be months until we have reliable data (like Pew Research's regular validated voter studies) on how people voted. However, voter registration data does seem to show that the Roe overturn immediately motivated women.
"Almost everywhere, what you saw was a pretty significant surge in gender gap in the two to four weeks after Dobbs," Bonier said. "And then we saw an increase, but not as pronounced after that."
That leaves a few questions unanswered, however. One is which women were motivated. Exit polls broadly suggest that young women broke hard for Democrats. But then, a post-election survey from AARP also showed that women over 65 swung significantly toward Democrats between July and November.
In addition, there's the question of how much the issue motivated men – or didn't. Many polls show that women and men don't differ much on their abortion opinions. Data from this election could provide new nuances to that data, showing whether the issue motivates women to vote more than men, or whether it just took longer to motivate men.
Abortion rights wins big on ballot measures
A second takeaway: Pro-choice policies, in isolation, did well. Five statewide ballot measures all came out in favor of abortion rights, even in red states like Kentucky and Montana. That's on top of an August win for abortion rights supporters on a Kansas ballot measure.
And yet in some of those places, pro-life candidates also prevailed. As Democratic strategist Rachel Bitecofer puts it: "There are millions of people who voted yes for a referendum to codify Roe or whatever and then went and voted for pro-life conservative Republican candidates."
Furthermore, plenty of politicians who famously favored restricting abortion easily won — Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott, for example, and Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.
Why is that? Bitecofer thinks it's about ineffective communication by abortion rights supporters.
"You want to make sure people understand this man is the guy who's signing into law the bill to steal your rights," she said.
She added, however, that the problem so far has been breaking voters' connections to party identity.
"People like heuristics. They like something that can tell them what to do without any mental investment. And that's why the party label is so incredibly powerful," Bitecofer said.
Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of SBA Pro Life America, which opposes abortion rights. Conversely, she thinks that more spending on the ballot measures would have been key to helping abortion rights supporters prevail. In addition, she sees wins by people like Abbott and DeSantis as proof of their political power.
"The one thing you have in an election on the pro-life side and we've always had is the candidate — a human representation of the argument on the debate stage," she said. "The reason that governors are winning well who have been ambitious for life is they've been articulating their position. They have the bully pulpit of the governorships."
Longwell, from the Republican Accountability Project, says that for many voters, it's also simply about the salience of abortion.
"In Texas, people generally like the job that Abbott's doing, right? They thought that he did a good job on COVID, and culturally they feel like they are with him more than they're not with him," she said. "And so people will tolerate being out of step [with him] on something like abortion, especially if it's not a high priority issue for them."
So, what messaging works?
One more takeaway — one that's harder to quantify — is what messaging strategy worked and how to move forward on the issue. For Dannenfelser, it's clear that Republicans failed, and that Democrats found a winning strategy.
"They ended up with a position that we need to label Republicans as for abortion bans generally, and do not go into the specifics of what a Republican is for or a pro-life candidate is for," she said.
Multiple Democratic strategists agree that staying away from gestational limits was smart, though they often do not see it as painting Republicans as overly extreme, like Republicans do.
"I think it was not only smart, but right of them to say there isn't some line, there isn't some like countdown clock in which you go from being a full autonomous human being to property of the state," said Analilia Mejia, codirector of the progressive Center for Popular Democracy.
Going forward, that leaves open the question of what the parties see as their best paths. To Republican pollster Whit Ayres, his party needs to abandon the tightest abortion measures.
"We have a number of laws that have been passed by Republican legislatures that are far from the mainstream, that include no exceptions, for example, for for rape or incest," he told a post-election panel at the Roper Center for Public Opinion. "That's the very definition of outside the mainstream."
The question is what Republicans do with that information — what they see as a winnable mainstream position? In the midterms, many Republican candidates avoided the topic of abortion. To Dannenfelser, that was a mistake.
"One thing you cannot do is expect to be a successful primary Republican candidate who says, 'It's a states issue and I don't expect to ever promote or sign a federal 15-week or heartbeat protection," she said.
Rebecca Katz, senior advisor for John Fetterman's Senate campaign, likewise thinks her party needs to not just message but act — in this case, to pass abortion rights legislation.
"I don't think that folks should just be high fiving because we won a cycle with such a devastating impact," she said. "There is a lot of work to be done."