Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Will the abortion issue define him?Credit…Eze Amos for The New York Times
After the liberal triumph in this month’s Wisconsin Supreme Court race, you probably don’t need much convincing that abortion rights can be a big political winner for Democrats.
But after Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed a law last week banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, it is worth considering another set of races: the elections where Republicans didn’t seem to pay a stiff political price for new abortion restrictions.
Surprisingly, Republicans tended to fare just as well in the midterms in the states where abortion was recently banned as they did in the states where abortion remained legal.
This is a little perplexing. There isn’t a definitive explanation, but I’ll offer two basic theories. Depending on your preferred answer, Mr. DeSantis’s anti-abortion stance may be an electoral death wish — or abortion simply may not be quite as helpful to Democrats as it seems based on the highest-profile elections, like the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court race.
Oddly enough, Wisconsin offers a stark example of how abortion may not always help Democrats. Abortion was banned there after the Dobbs decision, but in the midterms Republican candidates for U.S. House still won more votes than Democrats in a state Joe Biden carried in 2020. The Republican senator Ron Johnson won re-election as well. The Democratic governor, Tony Evers, won re-election by three percentage points — a fine performance, but not a Democratic romp.
It’s worth noting the unusual circumstances of Wisconsin’s abortion ban. The law banning abortion was originally enacted in 1849 — not by today’s Republicans — and went info effect after Roe v. Wade was overturned, giving the G.O.P. some maneuvering room. The Republican state Legislature argued for adding exceptions; Mr. Johnson pushed for an abortion referendum. Perhaps Republicans in the state just weren’t seen as responsible for the ban.
But Wisconsin isn’t alone. A similar story played out in Texas, Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri and Georgia. In some of these states, Republican governors enacted bans or other major restrictions that went into effect after the Dobbs decision. In others, Republican bans were blocked by the courts. But in all of them, Republicans nonetheless posted average to above-average midterm results.
In fact, there was only one state — West Virginia — where abortion was banned and where Democrats posted well above-average results in House races. Overall, Republican House candidates outran Donald J. Trump by a typical or above average amount (six points or more) in 10 of the 13 states where abortion was banned after Roe.
What makes sense of this pattern? Of the two basic possibilities, one would augur well for Democrats; the other would bode better for Mr. DeSantis.
Theory No. 1: It’s about demographics.
Abortion is relatively unpopular in states where today’s Republicans successfully banned abortion, like Texas or Georgia. These states tend to be relatively religious states in the South. There aren’t many of the secular, white, college-educated liberal Democrats who could bring about a “Roevember” backlash.
There seems to be a lot to this theory. Not only does it explain many of the cases in question, but it also fits a broader pattern from last November: Democratic strength in the House vote was somewhat correlated with support for abortion (though big Democratic failures in New York and California stand out as obvious exceptions).
But this theory doesn’t quite explain everything. In particular, it doesn’t work outside the South, including in places like Ohio or Wisconsin, where we know the right to abortion is popular. That’s where it’s important to notice my qualifier: where today’s Republicans successfully banned abortion. If demographics are the predominant explanation, then the Republican resilience in the North must be because voters simply didn’t hold them responsible for banning abortion. Democrats could hope Republicans will pay a greater political cost when they unequivocally restrict abortion, like what Mr. DeSantis is doing now in Florida.
Theory No. 2: When abortion is the most important issue.
This is what I’ll call the salience theory: It takes a special set of circumstances for Democrats to make abortion the most important issue to voters, like a Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate who promises to represent the decisive vote to legalize abortion when an abortion case is pending before the court, or a Michigan referendum that explicitly decides the future of abortion in a state.
As with the demographics theory, the salience theory is also consistent with polling and the general story of the 2022 midterms. Only a sliver of voters said abortion was the most important issue, not because abortion rights wasn’t important to them but because there were lots of other genuinely important issues at stake — the economy and inflation, crime, guns, democracy, immigration, and so on. With so many other issues, it makes sense that abortion plays only a marginal role in vote choice unless a distinct set of circumstances focuses the electorate on abortion alone.
The salience theory also fits one of the patterns of the election: the highly localized results. There were states where Democrats excelled, like Michigan or Pennsylvania, even as they struggled in California or New York. Where Democrats did well, they had the fodder to focus voters on one of their best issues, like attacking stop-the-steal candidates. Where they struggled, Republicans managed to focus the electorate on an issue like crime (democracy or abortion seemed less important).
It’s worth emphasizing that the salience theory doesn’t mean that abortion as an issue didn’t help Democrats in 2022. If Roe hadn’t been overturned, abortion would have been less salient everywhere and perhaps Democrats would have fared a bit worse across the board. But it would mean that Republican support for an abortion ban is not, on its own, sufficient to make abortion the predominant issue and bring stiff political costs to conservatives.
While this theory offers better news for Mr. DeSantis, it would nonetheless contain a lesson for Democrats: It seems they would be wise to find creative ways to keep the electorate focused on abortion. State referendums might be one option, much as Republicans put same-sex marriage on the ballot in 2004. A campaign to pass federal abortion legislation might be another path as well.