As observed on Friday, U.S. midterm elections are really collections of state and local elections. So it’s crucially important to recognize that the exit polls on these races – including in the closely contested swing state races whose outcomes have been vital for determining control of Congress – show just as convincingly as the national poll results that mishandling the abortion issue was a huge mistake for Republicans.
In fact, as I first saw it weeks ago, even though large numbers of variables always influence all such votes, strong GOP support for the Supreme Court’s take-back of national abortion rights and for enacting sweeping bans in its wake, turned out to be a huge enough mistake to explain most of the Republican under-performance in swing states that as of this writing could cost them both the House and Senate.
As with the national level, the evidence for these propositions at the state level (the focus of this post) comes from two leading exit polls. We’ll start with the data from the survey conducted for the Associated Press (AP) and Fox News by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Corporation, mainly because it looked at more individual states than the sounding by Edison Research for other major news networks, and because it contains state-level figures on that odd quirk pointed out in yesterday’s post: the tendency of many more respondents to brand abortion as the single most important factor behind than designated it as the most important issue facing the country.
That distinction – which I still find head-scratching – seems to account for much of the failure of so many pollsters to pick up on the significance of abortion in the weeks and months before Election Day. Opinion researchers evidently assumed that the wide lead over racked up by the economy over abortion when voters were asked about their top concerns would translate into an election completely dominated by economic issues, and therefore big Republican gains. But it didn’t, and the greater-than-expected influence of abortion on the actual voting looks sufficient to have swung the swing states in the Democrats’ favor.
Let’s kick off with Nevada, since incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto’s (typically narrow) win over Republican Paul Laxalt has just assured Democrats continued control of the Senate. When AP/Fox asked voters views on “the most important issue facing the country,” they responded almost identically like the country as a whole, giving “the economy and jobs” a majority (52 percent) and answering abortion just nine percent of the time.
Yet when it came to identifying “the single imost important factor” behind their vote, inflation’s margin over abortion was a much smaller 54 percent to 25 percent.
Moreover, it’s clear that voters motivated mainly by abortion were opposed to the overturning of the 1973 Roe vs Wade decision. In the AP/Fox survey, Nevadans took a “pro-choice” over a “pro-life” stance by a landslide-like 69 percent to 31 percent. And of that 69 percent, nearly half were “angry” about the Roe-overturning Dobbs ruling.
Voters in neighboring Arizona, where another loss helped kill GOP chances of capturing the Senate, gave the AP/Fox pollsters similar answers. They named the economy the country’s most important issue by 45 percent to 15 percent. But they said that their own vote was determined chiefly by inflation over abortion by a slimmer 50 percent to 24 percent count.
In addition, 62 percent of Arizona voters favored legalizing abortion in all or most cases with only 38 percent supporting a ban in all or most instances. And 35 percent of them described their views about the high court’s Dobbs ruling rescinding abortion rights as angry.
But this pattern isn’t simply a Mountain State phenomenon. In Pennsylvania, Republicans thought they had a great chance to hold a Senate seat because of Democratic candidate John Fetterman’s health problems and supposedly far-left views.
There again, a majority (51 percent) of voters said the economy was the country’s most important issue, and only 12 percent named abortion. But inflation beat abortion as a the key vote motivator by just 50 percent to 24 percent.
And in the Keystone State, too, voters supporting legalizing abortion in all or most cases by 65 percent to 35 percent, with those professing to be angry about Roe’s demise totaling 35 percent.
In New Hampshire, Republicans thought they could flip the Senate seat held by incumbent Maggie Hassan. On the “most important issue facing the country” question, they chose the economy over abortion by 50 percent to 13 percent. Yet on the “single most important factor” shaping their vote, that lead shrank to 48 percent for inflation compared with 23 percent for abortion.
In New Hampshire, “pro-choice” views topped “pro-life” views by a yawning 73 percent to 27 percent, and nearly half of all voters (47 percent) declared themselves angry about the Dobbs decision.
The Edison survey, again, didn’t ask the “most important issue facing the country” question in its exit poll. But it, too, found much more prominence given to abortion, and more heated opposition to the strike-down of broad abortion rights, than was apparent from the pre-election surveys.
In Nevada, Edison found that 36 percent of voters named inflation the “most important issue to your vote” – not overwhelmingly ahead of the 28 percent naming abortion. Nevadans backed broad access to abortion by 66 percent to 29 percent, and fully 35 percent were angered by the Dobbs ruling.
According to Edison, Arizonans prioritized inflation over abortion by a slim 36 percent to 32 percent. Broad abortion legality out-polled broad illegality by 63 percent to 35 percent, and those angered by the Supreme Court’s latest abortion decision totaled an impressive 40 percent.
In Pennsylvania, Edison researchers found that abortion actually beat out inflation as voters’ biggest motivator by 37 percent to 28 percent. Pennsylvanians took “pro-choice” positions over “pro-life” positions by a wide 62 percent to 34 percent, and 39 percent expressed anger over the Dobbs ruling.
Finally, in New Hampshire, Edison reported that inflation edged abortion by just 36 percent to 35 percent as the biggest factor behind voter decisions. “Pro-choice” backers exceeded their “pro-life” counterparts by 68 percent to 29 percent, and those angry due to the overturning of Roe vs Wade numbered a considerable 42 percent.
Incidentally, another major surprise in both sets of exit polls was the importance respondents attached to “the future of democracy in this country,” as AP/Fox called it. In nearly all the states examined above, this issue registered in the low- or mid-40 percent range as “the single most important factor” behind individuals’ votes.
But it’s difficult to understand whether Democrats or Republicans benefited on net, because members of both parties have expressed significant but significantly different sets of anxieties about the subject.
The numerous factors influencing midterm election results include national issues, state and local issues, candidate personalities, voter turnout, and changing demographics. Moreover, the lines separating these issues are rarely blindingly bright, or even close.
But the surprisingly great salience showed by abortion issues in the post-election exit polls, in contrast to the findings of pre-election polls, tells me that my hunch about the political impact of the Dobbs decision was well-founded. As was the case with no other issue, its announcement (on June 24) gave the Democrats a mobilizing cause when they had absolutely nothng going for them before. That’s why this gift looks like the single development most responsible for turning the Red Wave into a Red Trickle – at most.