It will change America in a seismic way. But would a Supreme Court decision to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision change how Americans actually vote?
I’ll believe it when I see it.
If the draft opinion to overturn Roe, first revealed by Politico, accurately reflects the final outcome, we will find out just how much abortion rights matter to voters, and especially to women. For all the outrage over the ability of unelected justices to take away a right that has been in place for nearly 50 years — if that happens, it’s because voters around the country have been electing politicians who oppose abortion rights. There’s no Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, or Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court without an antiabortion Republican president in the White House and a Senate controlled by antiabortion Republicans. There are no state trigger laws designed to take away abortion rights without state legislatures controlled by antiabortion lawmakers and governors willing to enact the bills they pass into law.
The way to reverse the antiabortion trend is to change the people who are elected to office. Yet even as the prospect of overturning Roe becomes more real, the jury is out on whether it will matter in a significant way at the polls. “It’s hard for me to read the tea leaves on voting,” Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of Reproductive Equity Now, told me. “What people are feeling today, we’ve been saying this is coming for a long time. Still, it’s stunning to see and feel it. I hope that translates to the ballot box.”
The polls consistently say that Americans support abortion rights. For example, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 54 percent of those surveyed said the Supreme Court should uphold Roe v. Wade. Yet that’s not how Americans vote. In last year’s race for governor of Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe cast himself as the guardian of abortion rights and spent a considerable amount of time, money, and effort trying to drum up fear about what Republican Glenn Youngkin would do to undercut them if he won. Yet when the votes were counted, Youngkin — who opposes abortion except in the case of rape, incest or to save the life of a pregnant woman — prevailed. The economy and school culture issues were more critical to voters, including female voters.
Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine is getting furious pushback now for believing Kavanaugh after he supposedly told her he did not believe in upending the legal precedent set by Roe in the run-up to his 2018 confirmation. But she easily won reelection in 2020, despite efforts by her Democratic opponent to make the vote Collins cast for Kavanaugh a reason to deny her another term. And she did it with support from abortion providers.
Democrats are now trying to make abortion the hot reason to vote in the midterm elections. Can they succeed? In a recent survey done by Global Strategy Group to help abortion rights advocates frame policy issues, voters were asked if they would be more motivated to cast a ballot in November if the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Overall the answer was yes, from 70 percent of Democrats, 46 percent of Independents, and 54 percent of Republicans. Whether that would make those voters more motivated to vote for Democrats who support abortion rights is not clear from the survey.
There are several problems associated with looking at overall support for abortion rights as an indicator of how people will vote. It’s a complicated issue for many people. They can generally support abortion rights, yet still believe in some restrictions. Also, it’s an issue that many are inclined to view narrowly as a “women’s issue,” despite the obvious male involvement in the pregnancy process, and the overall impact of children on society. Even though Democrats want to make abortion the key issue, it’s possible they will face the same problem McAuliffe did in Virginia. Other issues matter more, like inflation, crime, and taxes.
Even framing the overturning of Roe as one piece of a larger and even more frightening assault on privacy and freedom may not be enough. That’s what we are about to find out.