Abortion has long motivated Republicans as a political issue. But after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in early September not to block the new Texas law that bans most abortions once an ultrasound can detect heart activity, usually about six weeks after pregnancy, many have argued that Democrats may be more motivated by reproductive rights. As a Republican pollster recently told The Associated Press, “It will be a very motivating topic for women who were not normally single-topic pro-choice voters.”
Tracking data from The Economist / YouGov appears to support this point of view. In every weekly poll since February, respondents have been asked about the importance of abortion, and as we can see in the graph below, the issue has since lost its relevance to Democrats and Republicans.
For most of 2021, Trump voters were more likely than Biden voters to say that abortion is a “very important” issue to them. This was in line with the long history of anti-abortionists who consider the issue more important than its proponents. But as the graph above shows, that pattern was dramatically reversed after the Texas ban on abortion went into effect. Averaging the five weekly polls conducted by The Economist / YouGov since then, 51 percent of Biden supporters rated abortion a very important issue, compared with just 39 percent of Trump supporters. Morning Consult’s poll shows that the proportion of Democratic women who said issues like abortion, contraception and equal pay are central to federal election election nearly doubled in the immediate aftermath of the Texas ban.
Democrats had also heard “a lot” about new restrictive abortion laws in both Texas and Mississippi almost twice as often as Republicans (49 percent versus 26 percent in an Economist / YouGov poll October 3-5). This is likely due to how little airtime Texas law has gotten from both Republican politicians and conservative media outlets like Fox News. Note that Fox News mentioned “abortion” 392 times in September, compared with 1,326 and 2,969 mentions on CNN and MSNBC, respectively. Republican politicians and conservative media organizations reportedly fear a possible backlash from the unpopular Texas law.
The fact that Democrats are more likely to say they care about abortion and that they have heard a lot about Texan law fits well with a familiar pattern of public polling: Americans whose political commitments are threatened respond by raising these issues increasingly give priority. This has happened several times over the past few decades during high-profile public policy debates, and existing research even suggests that political threats may mobilize voter turnout.
What Texas’s Abortion Ban Could Mean for the Rest of the Country | Five thirty eight
We saw a similar phenomenon in former President Donald Trump’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. In a poll by The Economist / YouGov a week before the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton and Trump voters were equally likely to say health care was a “very important” issue (76 percent and 75 percent, respectively). But when Trump and the Republican majority in Congress pushed for Obamacare to be overturned in the first year of his presidency, Democrats and Republicans increasingly argued over the importance of the issue. At the end of April 2017, healthcare was a very important issue for 85 percent of Clinton voters compared to just 67 percent of Trump supporters. This is telling as Democratic voters prioritized health care as their top priority in the 2018 midterm elections, with Democrats more than twice as likely as Republicans.
Whether Democrats continue to prioritize abortion will inevitably depend, in large part, on how the Supreme Court rules next year the constitutionality of a Mississippi statute that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation. It also remains to be seen how further restrictions on reproductive rights will affect the 2022 midterm elections – threats to the health care status quo helped Democrats in 2018 and hurt them back in 2010. But regardless of how the court rules, public opinion is strong represented abortions make it an unusually strong issue in American politics – on which voters have even switched parties in the past. Any increasing importance of abortion to Democratic voters is therefore likely to be a boon to the party’s unlikely chances of maintaining its narrow majorities in Congress after the 2022 midterm elections.