In their analysis of the 2022 midterm election, commentators both left and right have suggested that voter support for legal abortion was a key factor behind Republicans’ historic underperformance.
The simplest form of abortion activist argument: the midterms demonstrated major backlash Dobbs and suggest that most Americans want permissive abortion laws. In other words, the results are a mandate in favor of abortion on demand.
And the simplest form of the argument from some observers on the right: being pro-life is a campaign expense for Republicans — perhaps too expensive to be worth it — because most Americans reject the pro-life position. In other words, being active and vocal about life hinders the GOP more than it helps.
Both claims demonstrate a genuine understanding of the abortion debate and the intricacies of elections. They fail to take into account the complexity of Americans’ views on abortion. They ignore significant data showing that Americans want to protect unborn children throughout most of their pregnancy. They fail to recognize the many other factors at play in any race — the impact of candidates and their messages, the impact of spending perks, the impact of confusingly worded voting policies, the impact of media and advertising campaigns designed to mislead.
The Midterms do not tell a clear story about the future of abortion policy and the pro-life movement. Instead, they offer a set of lessons on how to be effective on this issue — and Republican politicians should use this defeat as an opportunity to learn them. Abortion can be a winning issue for conservatives, but only if politicians treat it that way.
Lesson #1: Supporting pro-life policies is not an election loser, and in fact it can help win elections when Republicans field otherwise solid candidates who are good at spreading pro-life messages. In five major races — the gubernatorial loopholes in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas — Republican governors who signed pro-life legislation in their last term won re-election with ease. None of them shied away from their pro-life stance, despite being heavily criticized by the media and their Democratic opponents on the issue.
If support for legal abortion had been a priority for voters, those Republican governors probably would have paid a heavy price. Instead, each of them significantly outperformed other Republicans in their own states, suggesting that the GOP’s underperformance had much more to do with a variety of other factors.
Lesson #2: Americans are not enthusiastic about any of their viable options in abortion policy, but they like the Democratic position the least. An interesting piece of information on this point: a CBS News Exit Poll found voters said they trusted Democrats more than Republicans when it came to abortion — but by only 10 points. That’s hardly a guess Dobbs backlash, nor does it suggest a strong national preference for legal abortion or the Democratic position. It’s more of a resigned sigh, a sign that the battle for hearts and minds is very much alive.
Meanwhile, a plethora of data shows that Democratic politicians are completely out of step with the average American —and their own voters. The official position of the Democratic Party: Abortion for any reason should be legal at all stages of pregnancy. In any case, it should be financed by the taxpayer. Abortion should no longer be “safe, legal, and rare‘ because ‘rare’ implies that there is something wrong with abortion. States should not be allowed to enact anti-death laws, self-impose safety standards for abortion clinics, or ban discriminatory abortions chosen on the basis of the child’s race, sex, or diagnosis of disability. Health professionals should be required to perform abortions even if it goes against their religious or moral beliefs or their best medical judgment. But doctors should Not be obliged to care for newborns who survive an attempted abortion; that should be left to pregnant mothers and abortifacients.
Despite the fact that almost all national Democratic politicians hold each of these positions, extensive polls show that none of them are popular, even among Democratic voters. Less than 20 percent of Democrats, for example, say that voluntary abortion within the last three months of pregnancy should be legal — let alone taxpayer-funded and coerced by doctors. Almost three-fourths of Americans now say abortion should only be allowed during the first three months of pregnancy, only if the mother has been raped or life-threatening, or not at all. In short, there is a national consensus versus the position of the Democratic Party on abortion.
Lesson #3: Abortion can be a winning issue for Republicans, but it won’t be if they don’t choose to treat it that way. For decades, most federal Republicans have walked away from abortion at every possible opportunity. They yelled Roe v. calf at the right time of year to be sure. They have occasionally held (failed) polls to disprove Planned Parenthood. They have made sure to emphasize the dignity of unborn children in their re-election campaigns. But rarely have GOP politicians shown any real desire to treat abortion policy as the wedge problem it is.
Most Americans do not yet support protecting all unborn children from the moment of conception. But the pragmatic Republican position — the most pro-life and also in line with public opinion on the road to the goal of total abolition of politics — is far more popular than the all-or-nothing stance of the Democrats.
Strategic incrementalism on abortion is a major political advantage, and Republicans should view it as such. Look again at the states that have enacted protective laws in recent years. In none of these states have Republicans experienced major campaigning at the state level because the legislature deliberately chose policies that most voters support.
Democrats, on the other hand, do not indulge in incrementalism; They are abortion absolutists. They don’t vote for liveborn or painful bills. They don’t support conscience rights for doctors. They do not support bans on discriminatory abortions. They want to ban states from passing pro-life laws. They insist on abortion throughout pregnancy for any reason, funded by taxpayers. These positions are popular with only a small fraction of the American public.
Therein lies the political advantage for Republicans — but it’s only an advantage if they choose to use it. Senator Lindsey Graham demonstrated what that could look like in September when she introduced a 15-week abortion ban, which most Americans support. But only a handful of his Republican compatriots agreed to sign up as co-sponsors, while some who declined offered the dubious excuse that state governments alone should regulate abortion policy, despite having historically opted for the federal gestational age had voted borders.
Had the national GOP ever considered such a bill Dobbs had been passed down, it would have established a unified, popular Republican position from which the post-roe Debate. It would have preemptively refuted claims that the GOP aimed to ban all abortion from the start, and it would have exposed democratic extremism when they refused to support something as moderate and popular as a fifteen-week ban. In such a scenario, the midterm contests would likely have featured a very different messaging fight about abortion, one that would have favored pro-life advocates.
Lesson #4: Pro-life politicians must learn to refute the falsehoods of abortion rights activists. As mentioned above, the Republican position on abortion is far more popular than that of the Democrats. If the GOP does not address voters on this issue, it is because of the large discrepancy between the parties’ positions and what voters believe those positions to be. It’s a messaging issue; Republicans have a compelling message on abortion, but they’re not articulating it.
Of course, pro-abortion advocates have the great advantage of being endorsed by almost every major media outlet, allowing them to get their message out and silence counter-arguments. But it would be harder for them to succeed if Republicans were able and willing to gut their lies.
Take the abortion debate since then as an example Dobbs, dominated by the false claim that pro-life laws would prevent women from receiving emergency care for pregnancy complications. Imagine every state with a pro-life law that went into effect after that DobbsRepublican lawmakers had released coordinated, persuasive, fact-based, and compassionate statements about how their laws protect unborn children and pregnant mothers. Imagine if they had managed to anticipate this highly predictable argument from the left and taken steps to refute it in advance while passing their bills. Imagine if every GOP politician gave interviews explicitly explaining why voluntary abortion exists no health procedure and is never medically indicated – why abortion is indeed not beneficial to women’s health and often harms women. Republicans’ decision not to develop such a strategy does not prove that the pro-life message has failed; it only proves that Republicans have failed to articulate that message.
Midterms 2022 tells no story of pro-life defeat. They chart a path to victory, with effective pro-life leadership being a critical part of Republican success. GOP politicians can no longer scapegoat the pro-life movement for their own electoral failures. The American people are receptive to the pro-life message. Republicans must have the courage to share them.