Why the threat to Roe may not save Democrats in 2022

The quick-setting gospel in Washington, D.C. last week was that any rollback of Roe v. Wade next year would trigger a Democratic revolt, placing abortion rights at the center of the midterm elections and sparking unprecedented turnout on the left.

But in the days since the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on a case from Mississippi, a more sober and nuanced assessment has begun to settle in. 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.

Some of that thinking is colored by Virginia’s gubernatorial race earlier this year. After the Supreme Court allowed a law banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy to take effect in Texas, the party was so sure abortion would resonate with voters that Democrat Terry McAuliffe made it a centerpiece of his campaign, saying “it will be a huge motivator for individuals to come out and vote.”

By the time ballots were cast, just 8 percent of voters listed abortion as the most important issue facing Virginia, according to exit polls. Even worse for Democrats, of the people who cared most about the issue, a majority voted for the Republican, Glenn Youngkin.

“It hasn’t moved people to the polls in places like Virginia and New Jersey this year. It wasn’t an issue in either state,” said Julie Roginsky, a former top adviser to New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, who won reelection this year, but by a far narrower margin than expected. “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.”

Roginsky, who began her career as a researcher at the pro-abortion rights group EMILY’s List, said it’s possible abortion rights will resonate more next year if the Supreme Court completely overturns Roe rather than paring it back. But she said, “Every time we’ve run on issues like women’s health, they have polled through the roof. But … they have been completely ineffective at getting voters to the polls. There’s a difference between something that polls really well, and something that gets voters to the polls. And that is what a lot of people are confusing.”

Reasons to be hesitant about Roe’s role in the midterms are plentiful. While a majority of Americans think abortion should be legal in most cases and pollsters saw the issue rise as a motivating factor for Democrats after the Texas case, abortion does not appear to be a top priority to voters overall. In an Economist/YouGov poll last month, abortion ranked behind taxes and government spending, health care, climate change and the environment, immigration and jobs and the economy as an issue of significance. That’s in line with exit polling from both 2016 and 2020, when the stakes on abortion and the Supreme Court could not have been more clear.

In 2016, despite then-candidate Donald Trump pledging to nominate “pro-life” justices and Hillary Clinton’s explicit warnings about the implications for Roe, only about one in five voters ranked Supreme Court appointments as the most important factor in their vote — and by a wide margin, those voters were more likely to be Republicans, according to exit polls. Four years later, after Trump had already begun to remake the court, Supreme Court appointments factored even less in voters’ minds — and that was just days after Republicans had secured a new 6-3 conservative court majority.

It’s true that Roe was still intact at that point and the electoral significance of its dismantling has not yet been tested. But the first-of-its-kind Texas statute was fresh on voters’ minds when Virginians voted.

“It’s the question of the moment and the honest answer is I don’t know,” David Axelrod, the former Barack Obama adviser, said in an email. “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?”

He said, “I lean to the second,” though he added, “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.”

Publicly, Democrats are posturing as though Roe will be of decisive strategic value next year. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) wrote that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe, it would “drive a blue wave next year,” while his fellow Californian, Rep. Jackie Speier, told NBC “the country hasn’t seen the rage of women speaking out.”

Natalie Murdock, a Democratic state senator from North Carolina, said the threat of losing Roe featured heavily in discussions among lawmakers at the National Black Caucus of State Legislators meeting in Atlanta this week, where Democrats are girding for Republican-controlled legislatures to ban or severely limit abortion access if Roe goes down.

“It’s going to be a voting issue,” Murdock said. “It will be part of the myriad of issues, because voters are multi-faceted … You can be concerned about gas prices and still be concerned about having the right to do what you want to do with your body.”

But some Democratic operatives preparing for midterm campaigns are far from convinced that abortion will factor significantly — or that their candidates will message on the issue. One Democratic strategist working in the Southwest said it’s “wishful thinking” that abortion will be a determinative issue in 2022, adding, “If anything, Republicans rally around abortion-based issues way more than Dems.” Another strategist dismissed abortion rights-based campaigning in a text message, writing “Roe isn’t going to surpass community issues, vaccine mandates, schooling, etc.” And a campaign manager who has worked on House and Senate races throughout the country said inflation — not abortion — is “the big factor.”

In a sign of how integral Roe has become to the Democratic Party’s orthodoxy, however, the strategist asked for anonymity, saying, “Don’t want people to think I’m downplaying Roe.”

One complication for campaigning on abortion rights is that the timing of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Mississippi case — which could come as late as June — will likely not be as advantageous to Democrats as many expect. While June falls squarely in the middle of the midterm year, that is also four full months before the election — an eternity in modern politics.

One Republican strategist in Washington, D.C., said, “We’ve got nine news cycles a day. You put four or five months there … we’ll have aged 100 years between June and November.”

It’s certain that abortion will be a motivating factor for many voters, and in close elections, even small slivers of an electorate can prove decisive. Mallory Quigley, a vice president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, which will spend millions of dollars in the midterms, noted that in Virginia, the proportion of voters who ranked abortion as a top concern, while relatively small, was still larger than the margin of victory.

“It absolutely is going to be a huge part of the election,” she said. “We’ve seen the way this issue can affect races on the margins.”

For Democrats, a Supreme Court ruling undercutting abortion rights protections could mobilize younger women “who never imagined living in a world without Roe,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic strategist and adviser to former Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. The court’s decision may incite older Democrats who do remember a world before Roe, and the issue may have salience with more affluent, college-educated women in suburbs where many of next year’s competitive Senate races will be decided.

“I think it’s an issue for certain constituencies, and I think it could be motivating for certain parts of the base for Democrats, and I think that’s ultimately how we have to view it,” said Danielle Cendejas, a Democratic mail strategist whose firm did campaign mail for both of Obama’s presidential campaigns.

But paradoxically, some Democrats believe the most effective use of the Supreme Court’s decision next year may not be to highlight Democratic positions on abortion at all — but rather, to depict it as an issue Republicans are obsessed with at the expense of more pressing concerns like the economy and jobs.

Molly Murphy, a Democratic pollster who has studied public opinion about abortion extensively, said that rather than frame the issue as “Republicans are bad on abortion, Democrats are good on abortion,” Democrats should use the Supreme Court’s ruling next year — and likely bans that follow — as an opportunity to set up a different contrast: Between a Democratic Party focused on kitchen table issues and a Republican Party “that wants to ban abortion and put people in jail or slap them with onerous fines.”

“That’s the construct that has proven to be powerful,” said Murphy, a partner at ALG Research, the firm that was President Joe Biden’s lead pollster in last year’s election.

That approach to Roe would seem to square with what Democratic operatives have learned from Virginia, and from their experience canvassing voters elsewhere. Democrats may care deeply about abortion rights, but there’s little evidence that a decision undercutting Roe next year would upend the election on its own.

Aimy Steele, the executive director of the New North Carolina project, which is working to register and turn out voters of color in a state that is home to one of a handful of Senate races that could determine the balance of power in the upper chamber in 2022, said the people her organization reaches out to have the economy, the coronavirus, health care and schools on their minds.

“This is what people are talking about as we knock their doors and talk to them on the phones and by text,” she said. “Many people care about Roe v. Wade. But does that translate into everyone voting and casting their ballot? … Absolutely not.”

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