As the 2022 midterms get nearer, "Republicans are confident that they will take control of the House," while "Democrats are hoping they still have one advantage around how voters feel about abortion rights," Alisa Chang says at NPR News. "After the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Democrats think promising to protect abortion access is their key to holding on to the House." But surveys show that as abortion fades from the headlines, it's also becoming less of a priority for voters.
So many Democrats are emphasizing abortion rights in the home stretch, to remind voters, as President Biden said at a recent "Restore Roe" event, of "how we felt when 50 years of constitutional precedent was overturned" in June, "the anger, the worry, the disbelief."
"If you care about the right to choose, then you gotta vote," Biden said, and if voters send back expanded Democratic majorities to Washington — not currently projected for the House, at least — "here's the promise I make to you and the American people: The first bill that I will send to the Congress will be to codify Roe v. Wade."
Opinion polls show that voters care most about the economy — voters almost always care most about the economy — and inflation and other economic drags weighing down Biden and the Democrats. The death of Roe and actions in Republican-led states to ban most or all abortions have erased the GOP's enthusiasm advantage, but Republicans have retaken the lead on which party voters want to win Congress. Is abortion enough to buck the conventional wisdom and historical precedent that Republicans will win control in the midterms?
Give Dems a chance
The polling shows that "abortion rights as an issue has clearly fired Democrats up across the board — and that's a huge thing because, you know, historically, the party in power loses seats," NPR senior political editor Domenico Montanaro says. "Republicans had a huge advantage when it came to the overall environment, inflation, the president's low job ratings. And this has really been able to fire up Democratic voters in a way, in particular women, that we hadn't seen before that."
That's why Democrats are talking about abortion rights, on the trail and in congressional ads, "all over the place," even in center-right swing districts, and Republicans are not, Montanaro adds. "And not only is that anecdotally telling me that it's key with independents who Democrats so badly need to win over to win those seats, but it also shows up in the data as well," where "we've seen majorities of independents say that the Supreme Court's decision actually makes them more likely to vote in this election and overwhelmingly for Democrats."
"The decision by SCOTUS has sent shockwaves through the electorate," Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, wrote in late June, after Marist's polling showed an immediate swing of 10 percentage points in Democrats' favor. "Men are +12 points and women are +18 points more likely to support congressional candidates who pledge to codify the protections of Roe v. Wade. Digging deeper, 63 percent of women, including 74 percent of suburban women, are also concerned that the court's decision is a harbinger of things to come."
Nope, everything's coming up Republicans
"While we might see progressive voters energized after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Democrats are probably in pretty deep trouble," FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver told ABC News. FiveThirtyEight's House forecast favors Republicans 79 out of 100 times. Politico's detailed election forecast currently rates the House "likely Republican" and the Senate a tossup.
After the Supreme Court overturned Roe, "it seemed possible that Democrats could avoid a midterm disaster," David Siders writes at Politico. "But if the post-Roe summer belonged to Democrats, by mid-October, even they can see the momentum they had is fading."
"I'm wishing the election were in August," Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way tells Politico. "I think we peaked a little early." Progressive ad maker Mark Longabaugh agreed: We're at the point in the election cycle "when an election starts to tilt and move," he said, "and I don't think you can look at these numbers across the country and say anything but it looks like it's moving in Republicans' direction. ... I think it's clear Republicans have seized the upper hand."
Democrats have a real shot at winning the Senate
"When asked to share their candid thoughts about the Democrats' chances of hanging onto their House majority in the coming election, party strategists often use words that cannot be printed in a family newsletter," Blake Hounshell writes at The New York Times. "But a brighter picture is coming together for Democrats on the Senate side." FiveThirtyEight judges that Democrats are "slightly favored" to keep control of the Senate.
The Senate map this year is reasonably friendly to Democrats, and "Senate races can be more distinct than House races, influenced less by national trends, and more by candidates' personalities," Hounshell explains. And this year, "Republicans are assembling what one top strategist laughingly described as an 'island of misfit toys' — a motley collection of candidates the Democratic Party hopes to portray as out of the mainstream on policy, personally compromised, and too cozy with Donald Trump."
"If the election were held today, polls suggest that Democrats would be narrowly favored to retain Senate control," Hounshell writes, though "as we've seen from the Supreme Court's abortion ruling and from the explosive allegations that emerged in the latest testimony against Trump, the political environment can shift quickly." Polls are also fallible, Biden's approval rating remains low, and inflation is still the No. 1 concern, he adds. But "for now, Democrats are pretty pleased with themselves for making lemonade out of a decidedly sour political environment."
It all depends on who turns up to vote
"I have a feeling that people [for whom] abortion was a top-level issue were probably largely voting to begin with," Derek Ryan, a Republican strategist and political data expert, tells The Texas Tribune. "They were probably already engaged," and "we've kind of already taken them into the equation, if you will." There was a surge in voter registrations after the Dobbs decision, but not all of those new voters will turn up to cast their ballots.
"It's cliche and cheesy, but it's an old saying for a reason — this election will come down to turnout," Ryan said. "Whether these individuals show up to vote or not is going to be the determining factor."
"The abortion war, should Democrats allow it, could unite their coalition and divide the GOP," A.B. Stoddard writes at The Bulwark, "It's a culture battle worth waging," if Democrats were up to the task. "If there is a GOP wave, it will be the result of a refusal of Democratic voters to turn out," she adds. "Rage posting on Instagram is not the same as rage voting. Pushing back against the dystopian tide will take resources, and energy, and all hands on deck. Pouting is simply dangerous."
Even if Republicans win, they may have lost young female voters forever
"The bad news for Democrats is that there are signs that abortion may be fading as a priority, even for younger women," who "appear to be following politics more closely than they were before the Dobbs decision," Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux writes at FiveThirtyEight. "Experts told me, though, that young women's reaction to living in a country with increasingly limited abortion access might take a while to take shape," especially if they skip the midterms as young voters often do.
The abrupt restrictions on abortion access could end up being a generation-defining event, "even if young women don't dramatically reshape the outcome of the midterms," Thomson-DeVeaux writes, citing research from Augusta University political scientist Mary-Kate Lizotte. "The Supreme Court's decision and the bans that followed are likely to shape young women's views of the GOP for years to come, solidifying their antipathy to the party as they grow older and start voting more regularly."
"For a lot of voters, particularly young women who are going to be impacted in a very real way, this is going to be one of the first times that they really cared about something when it comes to politics," Lizotte told FIveThirtyEight. "That's going to anchor the way many [young women] view the parties — not just in 2022, but in 2024 and beyond."
This post has been updated throughout to reflect the shifting data and opinions on how abortion rights will affect the midterms.