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A Case Study in Abortion Politics


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Many Democrats have come to believe that abortion access is the solution to their political problems. This week’s election results — with Ohio guaranteeing abortion access in a landslide and Democrats winning in both Virginia and Kentucky — support this notion.

But I continue to think that recent elections offer a more complex picture, and I want to use today’s newsletter to explain. I know that some readers are skeptical.

Widespread abortion access is clearly popular, even in many red states. When Americans have voted directly on the issue since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, abortion rights have gone seven for seven. What’s less clear is how much abortion politics affect general elections between a Democrat and a Republican. Is the effect large — or usually only enough to tip very close races?

Ohio, the center of the abortion fight in this year’s election, offers a useful case study.

A year ago, the Democratic Party set out to turn Ohio blue by emphasizing the Republican Party’s opposition to abortion.

Tim Ryan, the Democratic Senate nominee, protested outside the Supreme Court the day it eliminated the constitutional right to abortion access. “J.D. Vance wants a national abortion ban,” Ryan said about his Republican opponent later in the campaign. “I think we go back to Roe v. Wade.”

In the Ohio governor’s race, Nan Whaley, the Democratic nominee, went further than Ryan and organized her campaign around the topic, as Jessie Balmert of The Columbus Dispatch reported. “It is the only thing we’re really talking about,” Whaley said three weeks before Election Day. “We think it is the issue.”

None of this worked. Ryan lost to Vance by six percentage points. Whaley lost to Gov. Mike DeWine, the Republican incumbent who had signed abortion restrictions, by 25 points.

These failures were part of a pattern. In Texas, Beto O’Rourke focused on abortion in his campaign for governor last year. So did Stacey Abrams in Georgia, as well as the Democrats trying to defeat Gov. Ron DeSantis and Senator Marco Rubio in Florida. All these Democrats lost, some of them by double digits.

Nationwide, not a single Republican governor or senator has lost re-election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

That pattern might seem to conflict with this week’s election results, but I don’t think it does. Most Americans support widespread abortion access and will vote for ballot initiatives that protect or establish abortion rights. Yet in an election between two candidates, only a tiny slice of people is likely to vote differently because of any one issue, including abortion.

That slice can still decide some elections. In Virginia this week, Democrats won several swing districts in the state legislature (although not as many as they had hoped, the political analyst J. Miles Coleman says), partly by emphasizing abortion rights. Similarly, two of the few Republican House incumbents who lost last year — one in Ohio, another in New Mexico — struggled to defend their abortion opposition.

But many other examples that Democrats cite as proof of abortion’s political potency are weaker. Yes, Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky emphasized abortion during his successful re-election campaign this year, much as Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan did last year. Here’s the thing, though: Almost every incumbent governor, from both parties, who ran for re-election this year or last year won. The only exception was Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Nevada Democrat.

To argue that abortion has become a dominant factor in U.S. politics requires ignoring the results in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Texas and elsewhere.

Perhaps the most common mistake in politics is to believe that one’s own views are more popular than they in fact are. This mistake leads parties and candidates to focus too little on persuading undecided voters and to lose winnable elections.

The Republican Party has certainly damaged itself with its unpopular opposition to abortion, and Democrats can help themselves by highlighting the issue. Many other high-profile issues today — like inflation, immigration and crime — are much less favorable to Democrats, as Nate Cohn, The Times’s chief political analyst, told me. If the Supreme Court hadn’t overturned Roe v. Wade, maybe Republicans would be enjoying a winning streak right now.

Nonetheless, Democrats have not been able to use the popularity of abortion to defeat many Republicans since 2022. And Nate’s latest article offers reason to think that the issue’s effect on the 2024 elections may be even more modest. The electorate next year — for a presidential campaign — is likely to be larger, less liberal and less engaged in politics than this year’s electorate, he explains. It will include more people who vote as much on gut instinct as on policy positions.

To put it another way, if Democrats want to expand abortion access in the U.S., they almost certainly need to win more elections than they have in recent years. And to win more elections, they will probably have to campaign on a popular agenda that includes abortion yet is much broader.

  • Five Republican presidential candidates, minus Donald Trump, debated in Miami. Ron DeSantis criticized Trump for skipping the event, telling the crowd, “He owes it to you to be on this stage.”

  • The candidates expressed support for Israel and lamented setbacks in Tuesday’s elections. “We’ve become a party of losers,” Vivek Ramaswamy said.

  • Nikki Haley and DeSantis called each other soft on China. Tim Scott backed a federal abortion ban, while Chris Christie said the issue should be left to the states. Here’s a fact-check.

  • In the night’s most tense exchange, Ramaswamy mocked Haley’s daughter for using TikTok, leading Haley to call him “scum.”

  • After the debate ended, Scott’s girlfriend — whom he’s spoken about but never campaigned with — joined him onstage.

  • Late night hosts mocked the candidates.

If young voters view the U.S. as a peacemaker in the Israel-Hamas war, President Biden will benefit, writes John Della Volpe.

Journalists should stay focused on Ukraine, where Russia’s invasion threatens the security of the Eastern Hemisphere, Sasha Dovzhyk argues.

Gimme a break: The long, criminal trail of 55,000 rare Japanese Kit Kats.

How to be hot: Young men on TikTok are seeking answers to an age-old question.

Lives Lived: Domenico Spano outfitted billionaires and Hollywood stars, and his own dandyish style made him a highly recognizable peacock on New York’s streets. He died at 79.

M.L.B.: The Los Angeles Angels hired the 71-year-old Ron Washington as their new manager.

Name, image, likeness: Biden met with prominent former college football players to discuss athletes’ rights.

Hollywood returns: After 118 days, the Hollywood strike is coming to an end — the actors’ union and entertainment companies have reached a tentative deal. (The union will vote in the coming days.)

The deal addressed some of the big issues driving the labor stoppage: The studios agreed to increase streaming-service compensation, and promised not to use actors’ A.I. likeness without payment or approval. Analysts expect the studios to make up for higher labor costs by cutting production.

Related: The industry will be stretched trying to make up for months of lost work.

  • A musician accused Neil Portnow, the former head of the Grammy Awards, of drugging and raping her in 2018. A representative for Portnow said the allegations were false.

  • In a separate lawsuit, a former employee accused the record executive L.A. Reid of sexually assaulting her in the early 2000s.

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