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Perspective: Inflation versus abortion — which won?

Officially, abortion was on the ballot in five states, but it was an issue in all 50

SHARE Perspective: Inflation versus abortion — which won?

Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Did voters in Tuesday’s midterms care more about abortion or inflation? That was what pollsters and strategists wondered as they tried to predict the outcomes of key races.

Although abortion was only on the ballot in five states, it was an issue for Democrats everywhere, with President Joe Biden having promised to send an abortion-rights bill to Congress in January if his party secured enough votes to approve it.

The president wants to sign a bill codifying abortion rights on or near the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade on Jan. 22.

But a Republican-held Senate, enabled in part by unhappiness with the economy, could stand in his way.

Prior to the election, some polling showed that abortion was no longer the motivating issue that it was over the summer when registration of women voters increased in some states after Roe v. Wade was overturned. But exit polls on Tuesday showed that abortion was still very much on the minds of voters. CNN reported that one poll found abortion the second most important issue for voters, behind the economy.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s decision in June to return abortion law to the states injected the issue into ballot questions and statewide races, including gubernatorial races in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where candidates like Josh Shapiro hoped their abortion stance would win them votes.

While voters may cite inflation as a major concern, in states where abortion figured into ballot questions, they were disinclined to make abortion illegal.

California voters were asked to guarantee “reproductive freedom” through its state constitution, giving residents the “right to an abortion and a right to contraceptives.” With pre-election polling showing nearly 70% support, Proposition was expected to pass easily.

Michigan voters appear likely to approve an addition to the state’s constitution ensuring “a new individual right to reproductive freedom, including the right to make all decisions about pregnancy and abortion.” (But the state can regulate after fetal viability, though not prohibit if needed to protect “a patient’s life or physical or mental health.”)

Vermont is poised to add language to its constitution that says “an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course and shall not be denied or infringed upon unless justified by a compelling state interest.”

Kentucky voters considered an amendment to the state’s constitution that would say there is no right to an abortion or state funding for one. The amendment was failing with 86% of votes counted.

And with 80% of votes counted, it appears that Montana will fail to pass a ballot measure that says a baby born alive at any stage of development — either through a normal delivery or attempted abortion — must be provided medical care.

Questionable strategy?

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, NPR reported that abortion would be a “focal point” of the fall elections and The New York Times said that the decision had “galvanized” female voters. With a struggling economy and an unpopular president, Democrats bet on abortion as an issue that could keep the party aloft through the midterms.

Before Tuesday, some Democratic strategists were warning that an overemphasis on abortion might backfire, given concerns about the economy. Reuters reported that some aides even wanted the White House to link abortion to the economy.

Democrats also seemed to be overreaching with calls for “all-trimester abortion,” which stands in sharp contrast to polling that shows few Americans support abortion after the second trimester.

Then there was the NPR report last week that included the audio of a woman having an abortion at 11 weeks gestation. NPR included a note that said some listeners may find the story “disturbing,” which was an understatement; National Review pronounced it “ghastly.”

Researchers from Harvard Kennedy School and Northwestern University wrote in The Conversation on Nov. 1 that “voter concern over inflation may trump abortion as a motivating issue.”

Among all respondents to their survey, it wasn’t even in the top five issues, which were inflation, economy, crime/violence, health care and climate change. Among all Democrats, abortion came in at No. 4, after climate change, racism and inflation. And among women, it was No. 5, after inflation, crime, economy and health care.

The researchers concluded: “The Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision may have initially mobilized some voters in June and July, particularly women, but its effects appear to have diminished when we asked Americans about their intentions to vote again in August and October.”

But early exit polling showed otherwise. “Inflation tops voters’ list of concerns in this year’s midterm elections, with abortion a close second,” CNN reported, citing polling by Edison Research. “Approximately one-third called inflation the most important issue to their vote, with about 27% citing abortion. The remainder were roughly divided between picking crime, gun policy and immigration as their chief concerns.”

In Pennsylvania, one poll put abortion as the top issue, causing Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg to proclaim on Twitter that there had been a “colossal media fail on abortion and Dem intensity.”

But not everyone who considered abortion a motivating factor was voting for abortion rights. One Indianapolis couple who showed up to vote with their baby told a reporter they were voting “pro-life.”

When the final votes are in, they will likely show that Americans remain deeply divided over abortion, just like they were in the years after Roe and in the days after Dobbs. Supreme Court decisions won’t change this, nor will a midterm election.

But as the 2022 American Family Survey showed, Americans have nuanced views about abortion that aren’t reflected in polls, and most take a more moderate view on the issue than extremists on either side. Therefore, “politicians who are guided by those extremes are going to be out of step with public opinion in substantial ways, on both sides,” said Christopher F. Karpowitz, co-director for the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University and a co-investigator of the survey.