Why abortion isn’t the winning issue Democrats think it is in 2024 

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In addition to President Biden’s disqualifying mental decline and horrific approval ratings, Democrats have another problem: They are losing their advantage on the issue of abortion.

In the 2022 midterms and again this year, Democratic strategists and politicians have banked on young women, especially, turning out on Election Day to vote in favor of abortion rights. Anger about the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade fueled a better-than-expected performance by Democrats two years ago. Despite low approval ratings for Joe Biden and unhappiness with the direction of the country (most particularly with sky-high inflation cutting into real wages), Republicans failed to take back control of the Senate and barely took over the House of Representatives, winning by only a few seats. The long-anticipated “red wave” never materialized; voters punished the GOP for upending the long-established right to an abortion. 

Coming into this year, with the Oval Office up for grabs, Democrats wanted again to focus on abortion and blame Donald Trump. He appointed Justices Neil Gorsuch, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, establishing a conservative majority that overturned Roe v Wade.  

Biden’s party planned to run on “Dobbs and democracy,” referring to the landmark case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which abolished abortion rights. They intended to craft their campaign around reestablishing those rights, as well as defending American democracy against Trump. The abortion-rights push, however, is losing steam. 

A recent Rasmussen poll indicates that in a recent survey of 1,080 likely voters, “45% of respondents trust Democrats more to handle abortion, while 43% trust Republicans more.” That narrow 2-point advantage is within the margin of error (3 percentage points), and down from a 4-point lead in January. Last November, Democrats held a commanding 11-point advantage.  

How can that be? Voters may be reacting to Republican charges that Biden’s party holds an extreme position on abortion, condoning terminating a pregnancy at any point up to birth. Democrats routinely deny that this is their stance, but the 2019 law passed in New York state and a bill approved by 49 Democratic senators in 2022 prove otherwise. 

The legislation passed by Senate Democrats allows abortion up through nine months of pregnancy if, “in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.”  The bill does not specify what that risk might be; in theory, if a woman in her eighth month claims that having a baby might lead to severe depression, she can demand an abortion, even if the fetus were viable outside the womb.  

Also, she need not get approval from a doctor; the heath care provider can be a “physician, certified nurse-midwife, nurse practitioner [or] physician assistant.” This proposal mimicked the New York bill, which elicited from Cardinal Timothy Dolan a brutal op-ed describing how the “grisly legislation … eliminates legal penalties on abortionists who allow an aborted baby, who somehow survives the scalpel, vacuum and dismemberment, to die.”  

To be sure, the GOP has also offended voters by, in some instances, taking an extreme position on the issue. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis likely torpedoed his chances of becoming Trump’s running mate by signing into law a six-week ban on abortions in his state in 2023. Since many women do not even know they are pregnant at six weeks, such a position is untenable. DeSantis made that wrong-headed decision in an effort to boost his conservative credentials and improve his chances in the GOP primary for president.   

Polling on abortion has consistently shown that the majority of the country wants the procedure to be legal, within limits. Democrats’ refusal to set reasonable — or any — limits may be tempering their advantage on this issue. Recent Gallup polling shows a marked drop in the number of Americans who want to completely ban all abortions, while the number who endorse abortion “under any circumstances” has moved higher. Even so, half the country wants some restrictions. It is possible to read various polls as suggesting that the U.S. is reaching consensus on this very personal and important issue, and that the extremes of both parties are out of favor.

A poll by McLaughlin & Associates reveals that 54 percent of voters held abortion-rights stances, while only 40 percent held anti-abortion stances. But only 22 percent of all respondents say abortion should be legal for “any reason/any time.” Moreover, a clear majority says the procedure should be illegal after 15 weeks. That’s where the country is.  

Recognizing the majority’s views on abortion, and the results of several referendums in red states, presumptive GOP nominee Trump has adopted a middle-of-the-road position, agreeing with the Supreme Court’s ruling that it should be left up to the states. That doesn’t mean that Democrats won’t continue to paint Republicans as extremists on abortion, however.  

Recently, Vice President Harris posted on social platform X that, if elected, Trump would “ban abortions nationwide.” She was reprimanded by a “community note” reporting, with numerous corroborating citations, that “President Trump has repeatedly said he will not sign a national abortion ban.” X owner Elon Musk slammed Harris, posting, “When will politicians, or at least the intern who runs their account, learn that lying on this platform doesn’t work anymore?”  

The country is perhaps becoming more confident that abortion rights will be upheld state by state. In deep-red Kansas and other GOP-led states like Ohio, voters have favored the right to choose. Having abortion on the ballot in certain swing states like Arizona and Nevada may help turn out young voters in November, but the issue is not as potent as it was two years ago. For all groups, including young people, the economy and inflation — issues that Republicans have a sizeable advantage on — top other concerns.  

Liz Peek is a former partner of major bracket Wall Street firm Wertheim and Company.    

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