Voters sent a clear message on abortion; Republicans don’t want to hear it

A crowd of abortion rights supporters cheering and raising their arms, some holding placards.
Supporters in Columbus, Ohio, cheer election results Tuesday night on a state referendum to guarantee the right to abortion and other reproductive healthcare.
(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)
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Voters in four states used elections this week to once again send a clear message: They oppose restrictions on abortion rights, and they’re not easily distracted.

Republicans have been trying to ignore that message for more than a year since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, ending the nationwide guarantee of abortion rights and allowing states to impose limits. The GOP paid a political price in last year’s midterm elections; Tuesday’s results showed the cost is continuing and could rise further next year.

The clearest test came in Ohio, where a constitutional amendment passed that will guarantee abortion rights up through the point of viability, at roughly 23 weeks of pregnancy. Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health, seven states have held referendum votes; the abortion rights side has won them all.

In the aftermath, prominent antiabortion leaders have called on Republicans to back a national ban to override state laws. Democrats hope to use the threat of such a ban as a cudgel against Republican candidates in swing districts, including several districts in California that they lost in 2022 and hope now to regain.

How to respond has divided the GOP, but Republicans have little room to maneuver. Only about 1 in 8 Republicans say abortion should be illegal in all cases, according to surveys by the Public Religion Research Institute. But the strongly antiabortion wing of the party has long had disproportionate influence. Some of the party’s leaders, including the new House speaker, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, got their starts in the antiabortion movement.

GOP presidential hopefuls duck

Tensions over abortion policy could be seen in Wednesday night’s debate among five Republican presidential hopefuls — not including former President Trump.

When asked about Tuesday’s vote, only Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina called for a specific nationwide limit.

“I would certainly, as president of the United States, have a 15-week national limit,” said Scott, who has staked his campaign on his appeal to evangelical Christian voters.

“I would not allow states like California, Illinois or New York to have abortion up until the date of birth,” he added — falsely characterizing presidential powers and the laws in those states.


Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took the clearest position against federal legislation.

“This is an issue that should be decided in each state. And I trust the people of this country, state by state, to make the call for themselves,” he said. New Jersey’s law, which strongly protects abortion rights, is “morally reprehensible” to him, he said. “But that is what the people of our state have voted for.”

The two candidates who are closest to posing a serious challenge to Trump — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — tried to avoid being pinned down, much like Trump, who has blamed antiabortion activists for the party’s recent defeats and has been coy about what sort of restrictions he would support if he were to win reelection.

DeSantis signed Florida’s ban on abortions after the sixth week, which is now being challenged in state court. He blamed antiabortion groups for being “caught flat-footed on these referenda,” but did not take a firm position on what he might do as president.

“We’re better off when we can promote a culture of life,” he said. “At the same time, I understand that some of these states are doing it a little bit different. Texas is not going to do it the same as New Hampshire.”

Haley, as she has done throughout her campaign, stressed that antiabortion lawmakers don’t have the votes to get a ban through Congress.

“I would support anything that would pass, but you have to be honest with the American people about where the votes lie,” she said, adding: “We don’t need to divide America over this issue anymore.”


Public opinion has shifted

In truth, though, the issue hasn’t divided the country so much as it has split the GOP.

Public opinion has clearly moved toward support for abortion rights. In PRRI’s polling, 65% of Americans said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up from 55% a decade ago.

Gallup, which has been asking Americans about abortion for nearly half a century, reports that one-third of U.S. adults now think abortion should be legal in all cases — a record high. Meanwhile, support for banning all abortions has fallen to about 1 in 8 adults — a low.

Since Dobbs, for the first time, a majority views abortion as “morally acceptable,” Gallup’s surveys show.

Three failed GOP strategies

Republicans have tried several strategies to defeat that shift: On Tuesday, each lost.

In Ohio, the Republican establishment, from Gov. Mike DeWine on down, tried obstruction. In August, they tried to get voters to adopt a ballot measure that would have made referendums harder to pass. When that failed, they put language on Tuesday’s ballot that described the abortion rights measure in ways that seemed designed to make it unattractive to voters. It passed anyway, with 57% of the vote.

In Kentucky, where incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear made support for abortion rights a big part of his campaign, his opponent, Daniel Cameron, sought to change the subject. The Republican aired ads attacking Beshear for his veto of legislation that would have banned gender-affirming medical care for the state’s transgender youth. Beshear won 53% to 48% in a state Trump carried in 2020 by 26 points.

In Virginia, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin put forward what he described as a compromise — a ban at 15 weeks, which he portrayed as a “reasonable limit.”


Youngkin made that a key part of his effort to help Republicans win the state Senate, which would have given the GOP unified control over Virginia’s government.

Many Republican strategists believed Youngkin’s approach could work: Before Dobbs, polling suggested majority support nationwide for a 15-week limit. But if that was true then, it isn’t anymore. Not only did Virginia Republicans fail to win the state Senate; they also lost control of the House of Delegates.

Implications for 2024

Democrats, however, shouldn’t get giddy over abortion as a solution to their political problems.

Off-year elections are low-turnout affairs. In Ohio, 3.9 million people voted on the abortion referendum, but 5.8 million cast ballots in the 2020 presidential race. In Pennsylvania, 3.1 million people voted in Tuesday’s race for a seat on the state Supreme Court — another contest in which abortion rights played a role — and a Democrat won. In 2020, 6.8 million ballots were cast in the state.

A lot of Democrats have trouble wrapping their minds around one of the big shifts of the last decade: Democrats now have a clear edge in low-turnout elections because of their strength among college-educated voters.

The millions of additional voters who will take part in next year’s presidential balloting will almost certainly include large numbers of blue-collar Trump backers who, since 2016, have shown up for him but otherwise haven’t voted.


Democratic strategists hope abortion rights measures that could be on the ballot in several states, including Florida, Arizona and Nevada, will help counter that Trump surge.

But as our new poll of California voters indicates, about 1 in 4 voters who cast ballots for President Biden in 2020 aren’t planning to vote for him again. That’s a problem his campaign needs to solve, and abortion alone probably won’t be enough.

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