Young Women’s Views On Abortion Could Reshape The Midterms — And The Future Of Politics
In most midterm years, young voters tend to sit out the election. But 2022 could be a different kind of year. Turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds nearly doubled between the 2014 and 2018 midterm cycles. And the Supreme Court’s June ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which allows states to ban abortion for the first time in nearly five decades, suddenly put a spotlight on reproductive-health issues in many key elections.
That could motivate the country’s youngest voters — particularly women — to turn out in higher numbers. A large, recently released survey from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life shows that women between age 18 and 29 are especially likely to say not only that they’re following news about abortion rights and access closely but also that abortion is a critical issue for them.1 They’re also more likely than young men to say that they’re single-issue voters on abortion.
But even though young women appear to be following politics more closely than they were before the Dobbs decision, it may be harder for Democrats to mobilize them now than it was even a month or two ago. Since the summer, abortion appears to have become a less prominent issue. Data from the ongoing FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos survey using Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel indicates that the share of Americans who say they have heard a lot about abortion in the news declined from August to September.2 And probably not unrelatedly, the share of Americans who say that abortion is one of the most important issues facing the country fell over that period as well, after peaking in July.3
Experts told me, though, that young women’s reaction to living in a country with increasingly limited abortion access might take a while to take shape. Because fewer young voters usually turn out in midterm elections than in presidential elections, we may not feel the full impact of Dobbs among this group right away — particularly if Republicans succeed in restricting abortion in purple states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia in upcoming legislative sessions. So this year’s elections represent the first test of how young women are responding to the Supreme Court’s decision and its aftermath.
Overall, women and men don’t tend to think about abortion very differently — with the exception of the youngest generation of women. According to the Survey Center on American Life’s American Perspectives Survey, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of women between 18 and 29 think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 56 percent of men in the same age group and 52 percent of women 65 or over. The “most” versus “all” distinction is important because smaller shares tend to think that abortion should always be legal, with no limitations at all. But nearly half (48 percent) of 18- to 29-year-old women think abortion should be legal in all circumstances, compared with only 34 percent of both 18- to 29-year-old men and women 65 or over.
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And young women have been paying attention to the news, as 14 states have successfully banned nearly all abortions over the past few months. Sixty-four percent of 18- to 29-year-old women say they’re following news about abortion laws and restrictions very or somewhat closely — more than the share who say they’re closely following news about gas prices and inflation (55 percent) or the 2022 midterm elections (25 percent). Young women are also much likelier than Americans as a whole to say that abortion is a critical issue for them personally, by 61 percent to 36 percent. That’s true compared with other women, too: Only 34 percent of women 65 or over say that abortion is a critical issue for them.
The survey raises an intriguing possibility: that young women are likelier than their older counterparts to see the Supreme Court’s ruling, and the ensuing scramble to ban abortion in red states, as an attack on all women and not just a new set of restrictions on a medical procedure.
The researchers asked a set of questions designed to gauge whether people think of themselves as part of a distinct group, where things that happen to other people like them matter for them as well. The findings suggest that women who believe that what happens to other women in the U.S. affects their lives too were far likelier than women who don’t feel those connections to support abortion rights. Young women, meanwhile, were especially likely to feel a sense of linked fate with other women. About two-thirds (67 percent) of 18- to 29-year-old women said that everything or most things that happen to other women affected them too, compared with only 36 percent of women 65 or over.
Young women seem to feel a more acute sense of discrimination in general. The vast majority (82 percent) of women 65 or over say that people don’t treat them any differently because of their gender, whereas a much smaller majority (54 percent) of young women say the same. And 39 percent of young women say they think people treat them worse because of their gender.
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In other words, young women might be more likely than other demographic groups to feel that their own lives could be affected by abortion bans. Of course, women between 18 and 29 do make up a large share of women who get abortions, but the number of abortions performed in the U.S. every year is relatively small — suggesting that this sense of shared consequences could make this issue feel especially personal for young women, particularly in the short term. “I could imagine a woman in her 20s looking at the cost of child care, the difficulty of being a parent, and thinking, ‘Being able to get an abortion is something that really matters for women,’” said Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers University-Camden and the director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics.
The bad news for Democrats is that there are signs that abortion may be fading as a priority, even for younger women. The American Perspectives Survey was conducted in August, but it’s possible that if the same questions were asked today, enthusiasm around the issue of abortion might be lower. According to the ongoing FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll, shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling, 29 percent of reproductive-aged women (ages 18-44) said that abortion was one of the top three issues facing the country — a substantially higher share than women 45 or over (18 percent), men between 18 and 44 (18 percent), and men 45 or over (12 percent).4 But since then, the issue has lost some steam. Even among reproductive-aged women, only 12 percent listed abortion as one of their highest priorities in the most recent wave of the survey, conducted Sept. 6-19.
That trend probably has something to do with Americans’ hearing less about abortion in the news now than in the summer. The FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos survey found that the share of reproductive-aged women who said they’d heard a lot about abortion in the news dropped from 70 percent just after the Dobbs ruling to 47 percent in September. So a lot could depend on whether stories about people who can’t get abortions even in dire circumstances — like the 10-year-old rape survivor who had to travel from Ohio to Indiana for an abortion in July — make their way back into the headlines over the coming month. And then there’s the fact that only 25 percent of young women in the American Perspectives Survey said they were following news about the midterm elections very closely, suggesting that their concern about abortion rights may not translate into enthusiasm to vote in the upcoming elections.
But Mary-Kate Lizotte, an Augusta University political scientist who studies women’s political participation, said that the abrupt restrictions on abortion access could end up being a generation-defining event, even if young women don’t dramatically reshape the outcome of the midterms. After all, only a handful of races will determine which party controls Congress — not all of them statewide — and these elections generally get less attention than in presidential years. Whether or not the issue brings a lot of young women to the polls in key races, she said, the Supreme Court’s decision and the bans that followed are likely to shape young women’s views of the GOP for years to come, solidifying their antipathy to the party as they grow older and start voting more regularly.
“For a lot of voters, particularly young women who are going to be impacted in a very real way, this is going to be one of the first times that they really cared about something when it comes to politics,” said Lizotte. “That’s going to anchor the way many [young women] view the parties — not just in 2022, but in 2024 and beyond.”
CORRECTION (Oct. 5, 2022, 11:05 a.m.): This article has been updated to explain the methodology and question wording used in the ongoing FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos panel survey. Specifically, we corrected the question wording to clarify that respondents were not asked to give the top three issues that were most important to them but rather were asked to select up to three issues from a list of 20. The second chart has been updated along the same lines.