Voices: Abortion wasn’t supposed to matter in the midterms. Republicans got a rude awakening

Voices: Abortion wasn’t supposed to matter in the midterms. Republicans got a rude awakening

It was a truth universally acknowledged among pundits that voters don’t care about abortion. To be fair, those pundits weren’t just making broad conjectures: polling data did suggest that abortion rights weren’t voters’ top concern. Take, for example, an ABC News/Washington Post poll released in September. It put abortion as the fifth most important issue for midterm voters, behind the economy, education and schools, inflation, and crime (but before immigration and climate change).

And yet, there was room for nuance, even in those early days. Polling data should be taken with at least a grain of salt, because it’s never perfect. And abortion seemed especially tricky to analyze by way of polls, because it has not historically been on the ballot as prominently as it is now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v Wade.

“I’m a little skeptical of the recent polling on this,” political scientist Elaine Kamarck told ABC News about the aforementioned poll. “I think we don’t know the impact of the abortion issue, because it’s not your usual public policy issue.”

And indeed, the early perception that abortion rights wouldn’t move the midterms was erroneous. The predicted red wave did not happen. Sure, some Trump-backed candidates did well (Ron DeSantis and Marjorie Taylor Greene come to mind). But others plainly lost (hello, Mehmet Oz) or at least struggled way more than expected (as I type this, Lauren Boebert is in an unexpectedly tight race in Colorado, with Democrat Adam Frisch in a slight lead, and Sarah Palin is trailing her Democratic opponent Mary Peltola in Alaska).

Palin is a longtime figurehead of the anti-abortion movement. The same goes for Boebert: while that race hasn’t been called yet, her hardcore anti-abortion stance has at the very least not enabled her to sweep the state. And Oz, who infamously claimed that abortion decisions should be up to “women, doctors, [and] local political leaders”, lost to John Fetterman, who ran as a clear supporter of abortion rights and reproductive freedom. At the time of writing, Herschel Walker – who publicly stated that he was so anti-abortion he wouldn’t make exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother – is also behind in Georgia.

Exit polls show that voters cared a lot more about abortion than expected: it was the second most important issue they kept in mind, according to NBC News’s polling, right behind inflation and far ahead of crime, gun policy, and immigration.

And in states where abortion was explicitly on the ballot, people voted to support access to the procedure.

Voters in California, Vermont and Michigan have voted in favour of updating their state constitutions to reflect the right to abortion. In Kentucky, voters rejected an amendment to the state constitution that would have stated that “nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.”

In Montana, votes are still being counted when it comes to a strange bill that purports to offer protections for newborns, but which doctors fear could “limit palliative care for infants who are born but will not survive”, according to The New York Times. The so-called “Born Alive” bill is seen as largely symbolic of voters’ sentiment toward abortion rights. At the time of writing, 52.4 per cent of counted votes were against the proposed legislation. That means that no state where abortion was on the ballot has come out as anti-abortion, even in Republican strongholds.

Of course, we can still expect a world of mess if Republicans take the House. But the midterms tell us a couple of things already: one, that Trumpism is waning, and two, that abortion truly matters in the electoral world. And why wouldn’t it? It’s a social issue, and a human rights issue, and an economic issue. It affects everyone – not just the people who may or may not access it, but also their partners and other relatives. It’s front of mind, as it should be.

This could spell long-term trouble for the Republican party. The overturning of Roe v Wade is one of the most prominent elements of its recent legacy. It was the result of decades of legal challenges and aggressive strategizing. Republicans presumably hoped this would cement support among their base for years to come, but the reality is much more complicated. We should bear all of this in mind heading into the 2024 presidential election.