The political impact of reversing Roe, two views

In this post, I speculated about the likely political fallout in 2022 of a decision by the Supreme Court that year to overturn Roe v. Wade. I suggested that such a decision would energize Democrats (who likely will be in need of it) and might help swing a Senate seat or two in their favor. This, in turn, might enable Democrats to maintain control of the Senate. I concluded, however, that this scenario — a reaction to overturning Roe that causes Dems to hold the Senate — is unlikely.

Dan Balz of the Washington Post considers the same question more deeply. Balz’s starting point is the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. There, the Court ruled that states could enact some restrictions on the “right” to abortion.

Democrats seized on the decision in the 1989 elections. According to Balz:

The Webster decision had an immediate impact in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections that took place a few months after the decision. Democrats Douglas L. Wilder in Virginia and James J. Florio in New Jersey effectively used the threat to legal abortion to win their races. Wilder and Florio put the issue front and center in their appeals to voters, and their opponents struggled to find their footing.

The results rattled Republican officials. It was then that Lee Atwater, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, declared that the GOP should be a big-tent party, open to people on both sides of the abortion debate — despite a strong antiabortion plank in the party’s platform and the rising power of conservative Christians in the party’s coalition.

The reaction to Roe would make the reaction to Webster look mild. On the other hand, Wilder and Florio were running for governor, and Balz seems to agree that a decision to overturn Roe would likely have its most acute impact at that level, rather than in Senate races.

On balance, though, I read Balz as saying that such a decision would likely have a significant impact on Senate races, too. He quotes Celinda Lake, who believes that a decision to overturn Roe would motivate younger Democratic women, many of whom are infrequent voters. It would also fire up baby boom women who, unlike younger women, remember when abortion was not legal and until now have doubted that Roe would be overturned.

But at Politico, David Siders finds that Democrats themselves question the view that the overturning of Roe would materially help them in next year’s elections:

Interviews with more than a dozen Democratic strategists, pollsters and officials reveal skepticism that the court’s decision will dramatically alter the midterm landscape unless — and perhaps not even then — Roe is completely overturned. Privately, several Democratic strategists have suggested the usefulness of any decision on abortion next year will be limited, and some may advise their clients not to focus on abortion rights at all.

There seems to be an element of sulking here. One strategist said:

I wish we lived in a world where outrage mattered. But I think we live in a post-outrage world, and voters today are affected only by that which directly affects them, which is why the economy, affordability and cost of living is such a major issue for so many people. While a lot of people will express sympathy for that 12-year-old girl in Texas who got raped but no longer can terminate her pregnancy, it’s not what motivates them to go to the polls, sadly.

I don’t believe we live in a post-outrage world. “Outrages” still matter and so do social issues. Republicans are taking advantage of both and there’s no reason why Dems can’t take advantage of non-economic events that have outraged their base in the past.

The Politico piece cites more plausible reasons to think that the abortion issue won’t be a game-changer for them. Donald Trump promised in 2016 to nominate judges who were likely to vote to overturn Roe. Yet, only about one in five voters ranked Supreme Court appointments as the most important factor in their vote and by a wide margin, these voters were Republicans, according to exit polls.

Four years later, after Trump had nominated at least some judges who are likely to overturn Roe, Supreme Court appointments were less of a factor in the minds of voters than they had been in 2016.

Moreover, this year’s Virginia gubernatorial race took place very soon after the Supreme Court allowed a law banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy to take effect in Texas. Democrats were so sure the abortion issue would resonate with voters that Terry McAuliffe made it a centerpiece of his campaign, saying “it will be a huge motivator for individuals to come out and vote.”

Yet, just 8 percent of voters listed abortion as the most important issue facing Virginia, according to exit polls. A majority of them voted for the Glenn Youngkin.

But one reason why abortion has been a backburner issue for liberals may be that, as Celinda Lake says, few truly believed that Roe would be overturned. All bets are off if that actually happens.

David Axelrod summarizes the matter this way:

Can gutting Roe produce the kind of outpouring of women voters for Democrats we saw in 2018, particularly in the suburbs? Or will traditional metrics — standing of the president; feelings about the economy and overall direction of the country — govern people’s choices?

I lean to the second. We’ve never seen abortion rights move large numbers of Democrats in national elections, but we’ve also not seen in half a century the rolling back of those rights we’re likely to see next year.

Whatever one concludes about the likely political impact of a decision to overturn Roe, it should go without saying that such a calculation should have no impact on how the Supreme Court decides the Dobbs case.

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