Left awaits abortion backlash that may never come
Democrats have long assumed that if Republicans ever managed to overturn Roe v. Wade, they would come to regret it. This was not an unwarranted assumption. Poll after poll shows that strong majorities of Americans think abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances and want Roe v. Wade to be left intact.
“By removing the issue from the policy arena,” wrote legal analyst Benjamin Wittes in 2005, “the Supreme Court has prevented abortion-rights supporters from winning a debate in which public opinion favors them.” The dominant metaphor cast Republicans in this scenario as “the dog that caught the car” – – at last in possession of the object of their desire, with nothing but grief to come of it.
Yet here we are, and things don’t actually look so bad for Republicans. A draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe leaked last week, but a poll taken by CNN after the news broke showed the GOP running seven points ahead of Democrats on the generic ballot, which measures which party voters want to control Congress.
Perhaps voters simply aren’t paying attention, or haven’t had time to grapple with the implications? Well, perhaps – but what about Texas?
Last year, Texas effectively outlawed abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Now, Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who signed the bill into law, is running well ahead of Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke. It’s hard to argue that Texas voters are unaware; the law has been hotly debated and has seriously impacted abortion access. But so far, it just doesn’t seem to be moving many votes.
At first blush, this seems positively astonishing, given how central abortion has become to U.S. party politics. Yet it is actually pretty easy to explain in terms of three factors: polarization, power and place.
Polarization on this issue is obvious: An ardent core of activists on both sides has divided the parties cleanly on abortion and turned it into a litmus test for politicians. Republicans propose bans with minimal exceptions, while Democrats, even in red and purple states, struggle to name a single restriction they would support.
Because of this, the activists can’t affect elections much: They are already voting exclusively and regularly for one party or the other. The best the parties can try to do is to turn out a few more of their activists than the other side manages. The big hope has always been to move the less-polarized middle, but it’s starting to look like this issue just doesn’t have that power.
If Roe falls, abortion will most likely be thrown back to the states, since the politics of the filibuster make a national ban unlikely. In Kentucky, where 57 percent of voters want abortion to be illegal in all or most cases, that probably means a pretty strict ban. In Massachusetts, where 74 percent think it should be legal all or most of the time, abortion access will likely be unfettered.
Moreover, the states that are strongly pro-life also tend to be the states where abortion is already relatively uncommon. So a ban in pro-life Kentucky will prove much less disruptive than it would in pro-choice New York, where almost five times as many abortions are performed per 1,000 reproductive-age women.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be controversy. In states where the electorate is close to evenly split, asymmetric intensity could produce extreme laws that breed a backlash even from lukewarm voters. For that matter, even in deep-red states, there are undoubtedly limits to how many restrictions the electorate will support, and Republicans seem intent on testing them.
As long as Roe holds on, abortion will remain at the center of electoral politics. But should Roe fall, polarization, power and place may push it just as forcefully to the side of the stage.