WHY BANNING ABORTION WILL FUEL DEMOCRATS
Say Goodbye to the ‘Enthusiasm Gap’
In late April, Karl Rove wrote a gloating column in the Wall Street Journal that began with a quote from Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik confessing that his party would have a “terrible cycle.” Rove twisted the knife:
The question is how big the calamity will be. A freeway pileup? Category 5 hurricane? Or Krakatoa with all the attendant consequences?
All year, I’ve been more hopeful (OK, Pollyannish) than that about the Democrats’ chances. Despite high inflation, President Biden’s enduring unpopularity, and party operatives who seem wimpy and off-message, I’ve always thought the Senate races stack up well for Democrats (with pickups possible in two or three states) and that winning the House—notwithstanding a recent setback to pro-Democratic gerrymandering in New York State —is not a lost cause. Friends looked at me as if I’d spent too much time at the neighborhood dispensary.
Now there’s growing evidence that I might not have been so high after all. The key to defying the historical pattern (where the party in power loses seats) is for Democratic turnout to match 2018, not resemble 2010 and 2014, which were debacles for Democrats. In the latter, only 20 percent of registered 18-to-29 year olds—a heavily liberal cohort—bothered to vote.
Just when the failure to get a climate change or college debt relief bill through Congress seemed to set the party on course for a repeat, the needle began to move. The same day Rove’s column appeared, which was before the leak from the Supreme Court, a Morning Consult-Politico poll found:
the share of Democratic voters who said they were “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic to vote in the midterm elections increased from 48 percent to 54 percent, while Republican excitement only increased from 59 percent to 61 percent.
In other words, the dreaded “enthusiasm gap” was already closing.
If Democratic enthusiasm was up six points before the Roe news, imagine what it will be like after Democrats organize around it, as they intend to do?
I’m beginning to think this could be a history-defying election. A new Yahoo News-YouGov poll explains why. Before the Roe draft leaked, Democrats in that poll had a five point advantage in generic party identification. After the leak, when voters were asked to choose between a “pro-choice Democrat” and a “pro-life Republican,” the Democratic advantage ballooned to 13 points—a margin that with increased enthusiasm and a proper get-out-the-vote effort can compensate for inflation, gerrymandering, and even some Democratic ham-handedness.
Republicans know they might have a problem. That’s why, according to Axios, their consultants are urging GOP candidates to downplay abortion this fall. But the MAGA candidates aren’t listening. They despise those consultants and the old GOP establishment and are moving even further to the fringe (Louisiana is considering a bill that would ban IUDs.) In fact, the anti-abortion forces are so powerful that even Mitch McConnell—fully aware of the political dangers—feels obliged to back a federal bill outlawing all abortion, a position that is opposed by 70 percent of the country.
“Elect us, and we’ll ban abortion everywhere, forcing you to go to Canada if you get pregnant.” Not a winning message.
If Roe is overturned, Americans will wake up the next morning and discover that the justices have not in fact banned abortion nationwide but have simply upheld the right of states to impose restrictions — including restrictions that most of them support. That is unlikely to spark the kind of popular outrage Democrats are hoping for.
Thiessen could be right. When pro-choice Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski—and pro-choice Democrat Joe Manchin—voted against what used to be called an abortion-on-demand bill on the Senate floor on May 12, they were reflecting public sentiment.
But we may be moving out of the era where the abortion debate revolves around Roe-generated specifics about weeks and trimesters and into a binary pro-con realm that keeps the partisan divide simple and fuels intensity. In the past, that intensity has powered Republicans. Now the worm of history has turned.
Before the news from the Supreme Court, “choice” was not merely a tired buzzword; it was an abstraction—a conditional, provisional hypothetical (“If Roe is repealed, then…”) that did not drive turnout. Reality will. For nearly 50 years, the anti-abortion movement has been powered by the fact that abortion was legal. Now the “women’s freedom” movement (a new and powerful frame) will be turbo-charged by the fact that in much of the country, it will be illegal, even in cases of rape and incest.
Suddenly it is Republicans who will constantly be on the defensive, pressed into arguing why politicians—not women and their doctors—should make critical personal decisions. They will have to defend what is increasingly being called “forced pregnancy.” (Another useful new formulation in a debate that badly needs some new language.)
And other steamrollers are headed towards the GOP. If Justice Samuel Alito’s final opinion next month resembles his leaked draft, overturning Roe vs Wade will be based in part on the argument that abortion is not mentioned in the Constitution. Well, neither is contraception, which was legalized in 1965 in Griswold vs. Connecticut, the case that teed up Roe.
In recent days, several Republicans have argued that just because they think Griswold was wrongly decided doesn’t mean they oppose birth control. But that’s a tortured defensive position—a bit like Democrats having to explain that they don’t favor “partial-birth abortion.” If Democrats can keep extremist Republican objections to contraceptives and in-vitro fertilization front and center, intensity won’t be a problem in November. Those aren’t 70/30 issues like abortion; they are 90/10 issues.
The political nitroglycerin here lies in the relationship between women and what most of them perceive to be their rights. American history is largely the story of the expansion of rights, not the elimination of them. Nothing in the Bill of Rights has ever been repealed, nor have any pieces of major social legislation. The only experience we have of rights being taken away—the disenfranchisement of black voters across the South after Reconstruction—is in the distant past. (Today’s voting rights are under threat but have not yet been eliminated).
The truth is, we don’t know yet how Americans will react when the rights of women to control their own bodies are taken away in half the country. But I’d hazard a guess that the anger about it won’t subside any time soon.
I’m going to be talking about rights — from voting rights to reproductive rights — until the polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Sounds like a strategy at last.