Americans have long taken for granted the constitutional right to an abortion, established by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade.
Throughout most of the fall in 2021, Democrats, and especially Republicans, still thought that Roe would more likely than not remain the law of the land for the foreseeable future — even as the high court refused to block a Texas law from taking effect on Sept. 1 that lawmakers designed to flout Roe by banning abortions once they said cardiac activity was detected, usually about six weeks into a pregnancy.1
Those views started to change in December, though, following oral arguments before the Supreme Court over the constitutionality of Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban. More Americans began doubting Roe would survive after the court’s conservative justices raised the prospect of overturning nearly five decades of legal precedent on abortion rights during the hearing.
As the chart below shows, Democrats have consistently been pessimistic about Roe being overturned since those oral arguments in December, but following the leak of an initial draft Supreme Court opinion in May showing that a majority of conservative justices were ready to overturn Roe, there was a sharp spike in the share saying it “will definitely” or “very likely” be overturned. Even Republicans, who have been less likely than Democrats to think Roe would ever be struck down, now generally think it’s going to happen.
The reality that Roe might be overturned has also shifted how Americans prioritize abortion as an issue. For decades, those who opposed abortion rights (generally speaking, Republicans) rated the issue as more important than those who supported abortion rights (generally speaking, Democrats), but as the chart below shows, the two parties’ priorities swapped after Texas’s abortion ban went into effect, which I first wrote about in October.
In fact, the divide between Democrats and Republicans on the importance of abortion as an issue has only gotten wider, especially after the draft Supreme Court opinion was leaked in May. In the two surveys conducted by YouGov/The Economist since then, a record share of voters who backed President Biden in 2020 have rated abortion as a “very important” issue, by 61 percent and 63 percent, up from an average of about 42 percent in August surveys.2 Compare that with 37 percent and 40 percent of 2020 Trump voters who rated abortion as a “very important” issue in May, down from an average of about 45 percent in August polls.
Not only are Democrats more concerned now, but they're also rating abortion as much more important to their midterm vote for Congress now than they did four years ago, according to polling from Monmouth University. In the 2018 midterms, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to prioritize abortion as their most important issue in choosing whom to vote for in Congress, but in May, 32 percent of Democrats said abortion was the most important issue in determining their vote, compared with 17 percent of Republicans. The share of Democrats who said abortion was an “extremely important” issue in voting for Congress in 2022 (48 percent) is also up from 2018 (31 percent), while the share of Republicans who said the issue was “extremely important” in 2022 (29 percent) is down from 2018 (36 percent).
The polling data from both YouGov/The Economist and Monmouth is consistent with a long line of political science research showing how threats and anger often motivate people to take political action. When most Democrats considered abortion rights a given, other issues typically overshadowed it. Yet now that the status quo is on the verge of being upended, Democrats are increasingly prioritizing abortion rights and will likely channel their anger over Roe being struck down into various forms of political participation. Meanwhile, now that Republicans look likely to win their long battle to overturn Roe, the issue is unlikely to have the same potency in GOP politics.
It remains to be seen, though, how these changes in voters’ priorities will affect future elections. Thus far, the leaked draft Supreme Court opinion has had no discernible impact on which party voters would support in a congressional election in FiveThirtyEight’s generic ballot polling average. But as FiveThirtyEight editor-and-chief Nate Silver tweeted on Thursday, the electoral effects will likely manifest themselves in more nuanced ways — especially after the policy implications of the final ruling become even more apparent during the summer and fall campaign. Nate Cohn, the chief political analyst for The New York Times, concurred, adding that “the effect [of overturning Roe] on individual races may prove to be more important than its effect on the national political environment, if abortion becomes especially salient in places due to extreme candidates or state policy stakes.”
Regardless, the reality that abortion rights can no longer be taken for granted has already sharply shifted many voters’ priorities. Those shifts will likely grow larger, too, if Roe is ultimately overturned this summer — in fact, they may become even more politically powerful moving forward.