Will abortion overturn American policy? Here’s what the initial research tells us

If abortion is about to transform American politics, it is barely registering so far in the initial public reaction to a draft US Supreme Court decision.

The first numbers do not speak of a seismic shift of opinion. A slight bang, perhaps.

We now have several polls to gauge the public’s reaction to last week’s bombshell news about an unpublished decision by the country’s highest court.

This leaked draft suggests the court should overturn a five-decade precedent that access to abortion is a constitutional right and would instead allow states to set their own policy.

Democrats quickly turned to abortion as a potential winning message in this fall’s state and congressional elections.

The issue is seen as a way to galvanize young voters, whose recent disenchantment puts the majority party at risk of major annihilation.

Making abortion the issue at the polls would also allow Democrats to side with the majority of Americans who consistently tell pollsters they want Roe v. Wade remains intact.

That strategy was on display this week when Democrats held a hopeless vote in Congress to pass a law on the right to abortion, then turned it into an intermediate message.

Vice President Kamala Harris stood outside the Senate chamber and said abortion is now a matter for voters to decide – the argument being that keeping the Senate would allow Democrats to confirm more pro-choice judges and perhaps even pass a law if they win more seats.

After Democrats failed to pass a Senate vote this week on abortion rights, Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters the issue will now have to be decided by voters in this fall’s midterm elections. (Julia Nikhinson/Reuters)

Harris walked to the cameras after his party fell short of the majority as Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin opposed the abortion measure.

“[This] makes it clear that a priority for everyone who cares about this issue – the priority must be to elect pro-choice leaders,” the vice president said.

“On a local, state and federal level.”

What the headline numbers say

US President Joe Biden tweeted a similar message — as well as several other Democrats who argue that only voters in midterm elections can prevent abortion rights from disappearing in about two dozen states if the Supreme Court’s draft decision is valid when the decision is finally rendered.

But these voters are not moving. At least not yet.

What several new polls say in a nutshell is that Biden remains unpopular; his party remains in danger; and those numbers haven’t changed at all.

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American law professor Kimberly Wehle says she was not surprised by the draft ruling that the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Early results suggest this will not be a panacea for Democrats,” said Cameron Easley, senior editor at polling firm Morning Consult.

“Based on the data we’re seeing now, I think the answer to that question is no.”

Approval of the presidential office is considered an indicator of the electorate’s mood — and Biden’s score remains weak and stagnant.

Its 42% approval rating is consistent across several major weekly polls from two weeks earlier: by morning appointment, Ipsos and YouGov.

There has been a similar lack of movement in congressional preference: polling firms show no statistically significant change, with Democrats clinging to a small popular vote advantage that would likely not be enough to maintain control of Congress.

Now for the fine print

But a closer look at the fine print of these polls may give Democrats at least some miniature seeds of hope.

There are signs of growing enthusiasm among Democratic voters. And this is a key factor in midterm elections, as voter participation tends to be low, and small changes at affluence can trigger seismic differences.

The latest Morning Consult poll, May 6-9, found a sudden tightening of the so-called enthusiasm gap after months of Republicans expressing a much greater willingness to vote this year.

It showed that the percentage of Democrats who describe themselves as “extremely excited” to vote this year jumped eight percentage points from two weeks ago.

Younger voters are key: They are especially supportive of access to abortion, and their level of enthusiasm has increased in the latest Morning Consult poll.

Last month, Republicans had a scarier lead, with voters 12 percentage points more likely to consider themselves extremely enthusiastic, compared with seven points today.

And respondents in different polls were also more likely to describe abortion as a major issue for them in determining their vote this fall.

Top Senate Republicans, including leader Mitch McConnell, are presented in Washington on Tuesday. Republicans are favorites to win the House of Representatives in the US midterm elections in November. What is less clear is the state of the Senate, which has significant power in the formation of courts. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

‘Some indications that things may be changing’

“It could be an important indicator of something,” said Kathy Frankovic, a representative for YouGov.

“There are some indications that things may be changing. But we really need to wait.”

There are such hunches in different surveys. The Monmouth University Research Institute says that abortion climbed to the top level of questions voters find it important, suddenly ranking alongside the economy and ahead of other topics. The same researcher says opinion of the Supreme Court plummeted.

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As activists crouch outside the U.S. Supreme Court and lawmakers weigh next steps, many are bracing for a court decision poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, who has protected abortion rights in the United States since 1973.

There are other data points that tell a similar, albeit subtle, story.

YouGov considers abortion to be still far less important than the economy, but it has climbed the priority list, particularly for Democrats – rising from the top priority of just 2% of Democratic voters to 10%.

“That’s it [a] a very big change,” said Frankovic.

That’s why Easley offers three caveats to his broader conclusion that current numbers don’t look promising for Democrats.

Your first warning is that sudden burst of passion. That’s a shift, with the economy teetering and his party struggling to pass signature pledges in Congress.

Of the impending fight against abortion, Easley said, “It accelerated the Democratic intensity a little bit.”

Your second warning? Even a small shift in public opinion can make the difference in one or two fierce Senate races, and it can decide who controls that powerful chamber.

Then there is his third and final warning: that nothing has happened yet. All we saw was a draft court opinion, leaked to Politico.

Sarah Elder of Baltimore is shown protesting outside the US Supreme Court last week over the draft abortion ruling. She believes the decision will affect the midterm elections. (CBC)

Crowds of protesters flocked to the Supreme Court last week to express their outrage over the leaked draft ruling. They include Sarah Elder of Baltimore, who called the report devastating and a sign of a step backwards towards oppression.

She said she believes this will influence the midterm elections. “I hope this inspires a lot of people who were on the fence to vote for our cause,” she said.

But the court’s actual decision is not due until July, and the reality of the state’s crackdown on abortion would not be seen until later. And that’s why Frankovic is withholding judgment on the political consequences.

“We really need to wait until the decision comes,” she said. “This is not the last word on this.”

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