What we don’t know about the effect of abortion on the midterm elections

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Before Kansas voters weighed in last month, there had been just one poll gauging support for the state’s proposed constitutional amendment allowing new restrictions on abortion. This survey showed a close result, maybe a handful of points. And then Kansas voters voted him down by nearly 20.

The vote took place about two months after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organizationthe decision that eliminated the abortion protections established under Roe vs. Wade. It was not difficult to draw a line: voters angry with Dobbs helped bury the Constitutional Amendment in Kansas. There was even a bit of data to bolster the idea that women in particular led to the crushing of the amendment: New voter registrations among women increased as a result of the ruling. Data provided to the Washington Post shows similar increases in at least two other states.

The storyline here makes sense. The pieces click. But a new question immediately emerges: Is this story of energetic women voting specific to Kansas, or is it more broadly a story about the midterm elections?

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Let’s start with a relatively conservative assessment.

Tom Bonier, CEO of Democratic data company TargetSmart, began pointing out the increased density of women registering to vote after Dobbs a few weeks after the announcement of the decision. It should be noted that The Washington Post attempted to match its results without being able to do so universally (which may be a function of incomplete data on the Post’s side).

Bonier’s assessment, offered in a New York Times essay during the weekend, is that there is a “clear trend” showing increases in the percentage of women among new enrollments in a number of states, though none matched Kansas. The fact that Kansas held a special election focused specifically on abortion is, of course, an important consideration for this whole discussion: the state was voting explicitly on what Dobbs addressed.

Our data shows a blurry picture: increases in states like Pennsylvania, but not in places like New Mexico. The increase in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, didn’t just happen afterDobbs. There was a period in February, for example, when women made up an equally disproportionate percentage of new entrants. Maine is another state that many point to where women have recently seen an increase in new enrollees. La Poste can confirm this post-Dobbs increase, but the state also saw similar surges of women representing up to 65% of new enrollees in the past two years, long before the ruling.

There is no doubt that Democrats have seen an improvement in the polls since Dobbs. The company YouGov tracks responses to a generic voting question – asking people if they plan to vote Democrat or Republican on their House ballot – and has seen support for Democrats jump several points since the start of July. (Due to a methodology issue, YouGov does not have a generic vote-by-vote for the duration of the period between the leaked draft notice in Dobbs and the final decision.) It is thanks to the increase in support of the two women and men in recent weeks.

(The lines on the graph above show the average of the three most recent polls.)

Note, however, that Democrats had roughly the same level of support from women earlier this year as they do today. If we choose three months – January, April and July – we can see that the average female support fell in April before rebounding.

Does this mean that Dobbs (and/or leaked opinion) flipped a slide? That the spring was an aberration? Is there still something missing from the survey?

If we look at the generic ballot margin – i.e. the gap between Democrats and Republicans – the advantage among Democrats among women in the aftermath of Dobbs was actually lower than at the start of the year. (The most recent YouGov survey shows a wide gap, but that’s a poll.)

Interestingly, while the number of people expressing uncertainty about their vote has fallen (which tends to happen closer to elections), the decline has been much steeper among men. In other words, men are more likely to report newly more certainty about their vote.

We could read this as Dobbs not having a robust effect in women. Or we could read it another way: that polls don’t capture enthusiasm, just like that poll in Kansas was off the mark.

After all, consider that the imbalance in voter registration among women in Kansas dropped the electorate from 52.2% women to 52.4% in mid-July, a change of 0.2%. . This is not enough to result in a loss of 18 points for the constitutional amendment. But even if it’s not causal, it could be an indicator of enthusiasm, which can be harder to measure.

In the YouGov poll, enthusiasm for voting among men and women was about the same immediately before Dobbs as is now, with men expressing more interest in voting. But perhaps the polls just aren’t capturing the opinions of newly motivated women to vote, just as polls have repeatedly heavily undercounted Republican voters in 2016 and 2020 in particular. These shortcomings in the polls have been the subject of an enormous amount of analysis (almost all somewhat inconclusive), but it is not entirely implausible that women newly engaged in post-Dobbs could escape the attention of pollsters.

There are other assumptions we could question, of course. The gap between men and women on the legality of abortion has long been much narrower than that between Democrats and Republicans, for example, which means there may be new energy among liberal men as well.

Much of it is frustrating and vaporous. Particularly for fervent advocates of access to abortion, it seems obvious that American women would be outraged and flood the polls in November. They can. In which case, as the old warnings say, the most useful evaluation of the effect of Dobbs can be summed up as participation.

Lenny Bronner and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.


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