With about a month before the midterm election, some Republican candidates across the country are scrambling to moderate their position on abortion. Supporting the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — which overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the constitutional right to abortion — might be a winner in a Republican primary, but early signs are that it makes it harder to win a general election.
The conventional wisdom is that that’s in part because women are more motivated to vote this election season thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling. Conventional wisdom isn’t necessarily based on evidence, though. And while abortion is an increasingly important issue for women, there are signs it is galvanizing some men too.
If the Dobbs decision were motivating more women than men, then there’s a metric where that change would probably show up: the gender gap. The gender gap is calculated by looking at the difference between the share of men and women who voted for a particular candidate or party. A higher share of women than men have voted for Democrats in every midterm election since 1980, and in the past two midterm cycles the gap has been even bigger.
The 2018 midterm elections are a good example. That year, according to the exit polls, 59 percent of women — and only 47 percent of men — voted Democratic, which means the gender gap was historically wide, at nearly 12 percentage points.
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It will be hard to exceed that gap, even with abortion at the forefront of many voters’ minds. Our analysis of polls conducted between June and September suggests that, yes, women are leaning heavily toward Democrats, while men are more likely to support Republicans. But in our polling average,1 the gender gap isn’t quite as big as it was at this point in 2018.
Of course, the size of the gender gap will vary depending on the poll. We looked at two Pew Research Center polls — one conducted in August 2018 and one in August 2022 — and found that, in contrast with our average, the gender gap for Democrats among registered voters was a little wider in 2022 (6 points) than it was at the same point in 2018 (5 points), although it’s in the same ballpark. And it is noteworthy that Pew’s data says the 2022 gender gap is looking similar to the gap at the same point in 2018, given that Democrats have more electoral headwinds this year.
“I expect that the [Supreme Court] ruling will lead women — especially Gen-Z women — to be far more engaged with the midterms than they would have been otherwise,” said Melissa Deckman, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit polling organization.
But the gender gap is a measure of one fairly specific thing: how women vote relative to men. And that can be complicated when it comes to abortion, because men and women overall have very similar views on the issue. As we’ve written before, whether someone supports or opposes abortion rights has much more to do with their view of gender roles than their own gender. It’s possible, for example, that if left-leaning men are also unusually motivated to turn out, the gender gap could be smaller. A similar dynamic happened in 2020, when men moved toward President Joe Biden, resulting in a smaller gender gap compared with 2016.
So far, the evidence about how men are responding to the Dobbs ruling is mixed. Over the past few months, polls have found over and over again that rising concern over abortion is most dramatic among women, and reports of surging voter registration have focused on women. Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor at Rutgers University-Camden, said this makes sense because women — in particular, reproductive-aged women who support legal abortion — are more likely than men to feel personally threatened by the sudden loss of abortion rights.
But there have also been reports of higher-than-usual voter registration among young men. An analysis of a series of polls by the nonpartisan firm PerryUndem,2 shared with FiveThirtyEight, before and after the Dobbs ruling found that men of reproductive age were more likely to prioritize “safe and legal abortion” as a voting issue. In our polling average,3 we found that the gender gap for both Democrats and Republicans grew from June through September, but the gap grew more for Republicans than for Democrats. The two gaps are lopsided because men’s share of support for Democrats has grown as well as women’s, which means that the full magnitude of the shift doesn’t show up in that party’s side. Meanwhile, the shift in the Republicans’ gender gap shows something different: While the share of men supporting Republicans hasn’t changed meaningfully since June, the share of women supporting Republicans has declined, causing the gap to increase.
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Daniel Cassino, a professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said that abortion-rights opponents might also be fired up by the Dobbs decision — but that’s less likely to show up as a change in the polls because those people are a solid part of the Republican base and more likely to vote in midterm elections to begin with. “This year, motivating those [anti-abortion voters] doesn’t really help Republicans, because they’re already motivated,” he said.
He explained that reports of higher-than-usual voter registration among women and young voters are another complicating factor because it’s hard for pollsters to account for unexpected surges in turnout. Young voters tend to have particularly low turnout, and pollsters sometimes rely on how demographic groups have behaved in the past when they create models to determine who’s likely to vote and who isn’t. If young women are unusually motivated to vote this year, that could throw off pollsters’ estimates.
And then there are all the other factors that influence how people vote. Inflation and the economy are other issues that still consistently show up at the top of voters’ priority lists, and that’s not good for Democrats. Even though the economic outlook has improved in some respects over the past few months, a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll found that only 26 percent of Americans said that Democrats would do a better job handling the economy, while 39 percent said Republicans would do a better job. (An additional 20 percent said that neither party would do a better job, and 12 percent said they’d do an equally good job.)
So the question isn’t just whether abortion is motivating women more than men — it’s whether concern about abortion will lead voters who might be skeptical about the Democratic Party to vote for its candidates anyway. That group includes men as well as women, and their decisions will do a lot to shape how wide or narrow the gender gap turns out to be.
Mary Radcliffe and Cooper Burton contributed research.