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Why Abortion May Now Motivate Democrats More Than Republicans

Abortion has long motivated Republicans as a political issue. But following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in early September not to block Texas’s new law banning most abortions once an ultrasound can detect cardiac activity, usually about six weeks into a pregnancy, many have argued that Democrats may become more motivated by reproductive rights. As one Republican pollster recently told the Associated Press, “It is going to be a very motivating issue for women who haven’t typically been single-issue pro-choice voters.”

Tracking data from The Economist/YouGov seems to support this viewpoint. In each weekly survey since February, respondents were asked about the importance of abortion, and as we see in the chart below, the issue has become increasingly more important to Democrats and less important to Republicans ever since.

Throughout most of 2021, Trump voters were actually more likely than Biden voters to say that abortion is a “very important” issue to them. That matched the long history of abortion opponents rating the issue as more important than its proponents. But, as the chart above shows, this pattern was dramatically reversed after Texas’s abortion ban went into effect. Averaged across the five weekly surveys conducted by The Economist/YouGov since then, 51 percent of Biden backers rated abortion as a very important issue compared with just 39 percent of Trump supporters. Morning Consult’s polling shows that the share of Democratic women who said issues such as abortion, contraception and equal pay are central when voting for federal office nearly doubled immediately after Texas’s ban.

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Democrats were also almost twice as likely as Republicans to have heard “a lot” about new restrictive abortion laws in both Texas and Mississippi (49 percent vs. 26 percent, respectively in an Oct. 3-5 Economist/YouGov poll). This is likely due to how little airtime Texas’s law has gotten both among Republican politicians and conservative media outlets like Fox News. Consider that Fox News mentioned “abortion” 392 times in September, compared with 1,326 and 2,969 respective mentions on CNN and MSNBC.1 Republican politicians and conservative media organizations are reportedly fearful of the potential backlash from the unpopular Texas law.

The fact that Democrats are both more likely to say abortion is important to them and to have heard a lot about Texas’s law dovetails nicely with a familiar pattern in public opinion research: Americans whose policy commitments are threatened respond by increasingly prioritizing those issues. This has happened multiple times in recent decades during high-profile public policy debates and existing research even suggests that policy threats can mobilize election turnout.

We saw a similar phenomenon during former President Donald Trump administration’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. In a poll conducted by The Economist/YouGov one week before the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton voters and Trump voters were equally likely to say that health care was a “very important” issue (76 percent and 75 percent, respectively). But as Trump and the Republican majority in Congress pushed to repeal Obamacare during the first year of his presidency, Democrats and Republicans increasingly diverged over the issue’s importance. By the end of April 2017, health care was a very important issue among 85 percent of Clinton voters versus just 67 percent of Trump supporters. This is telling because Democratic voters went on to prioritize health care as their most important issue in the 2018 midterms elections, with Democrats more than twice as likely as Republicans to do so.

Whether Democrats continue prioritizing abortion will inevitably depend in large part on how the Supreme Court rules next year on the constitutionality of a Missississipi statute that bars most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It also remains to be seen how further restrictions on reproductive rights will affect the 2022 midterms — threats to the health care status quo helped Democrats in 2018 and hurt them back in 2010. But regardless of how the court rules, the public’s strongly held views about abortion make it an unusually powerful issue in American politics — one that voters have even switched parties over in the past. Any increased importance of abortion to Democratic voters, then, will likely be a boon to the party’s unlikely chances of retaining its slim congressional majorities after the 2022 midterm elections.

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  1. We ran a search of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC coverage from Sept. 1 to Sept. 30 in the Television News Archive using the GDELT 2.0 TV API. The database splits daily news footage into 15-second clips, and returned those that contained a mention of our search query (“abortion”).

Michael Tesler is a professor of political science at University of California, Irvine, author of “Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era” and co-author of “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.”