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Abortion as the Affirmative Action of the Right
Choosing between slippery slopes
I’ve previously written about how affirmative action is widely unpopular, and loses even in states that are solidly Democratic. Looking at the results of last night, it appears that the abortion issue is something of a right-wing equivalent.
Going into the midterms, political observers had already noticed a “Dobbs effect.” After the Supreme Court overturned Roe, we saw special elections and polls shift towards the Democrats. In August, Kansas voters rejected a pro-life ballot initiative by 18 points. Democrats clearly believed that Dobbs helped their electoral chances, mentioning abortion in television ads more than any other issue.
As of this morning, control of the House and Senate are yet to be determined. But no matter what else we find out, the 2022 midterms are going to go down as a disaster for Republicans. Presidents almost always lose seats in midterm elections, and the size of their loss can usually be predicted by the president’s approval rating and the state of the economy. The default result last night should have been a red wave. The fact that the electorate basically looks as it did in 2020 calls for an explanation.
Election denialism and candidate quality certainly had a large role to play. But Republicans have been under Trump’s spell for six years now, so the fact that things started to go sour after Dobbs indicates that abortion may have helped Democrats more than any other issue. We know this in part because abortion itself was on the ballot last night in 5 states, and the pro-choice position universally ran ahead of Democratic candidates, sometimes by a very wide margin. As I write this, we see the following results.
Vermont: With over 95% of the vote counted, this state has also approved a constitutional amendment enshrining abortion rights. The referendum is currently at 77%, at least nine points ahead of the Democrat in each statewide race.
Kentucky: With 86% of the vote in, a pro-life ballot initiative is only at 47%, and news outlets have called the race for NO. Rand Paul is currently leading his opponent by 33 points within the same electorate.
Montana: An initiative was on the ballot that would have required doctors to provide healthcare to fetuses that survive an abortion attempt. With 80% of the vote in, YES is only at 47%. As far as I know, the race has not yet been called by any outlet. Again, to put this result in context, Montana has two Congressional districts, in which the Republicans are currently up by 4 points and 34 points.
The last race is particularly striking. Even initiatives that seem to poll well and sound like they should be easy victories can lose in the reddest states. Josh Barro recently argued that voters are likely to be turned off by the side trying to get government involved in rare situations that they would rather not think about, and Montana seems to confirm this view.
I would add that the public is also legitimately concerned about slippery slopes here. After Dobbs came down, voters could see Republican politicians who had recently declared their solemn belief that life begins at conception suddenly switch to talking about only passing 15-week bans. Nobody is fooled. People understand that there is a religiously-motivated base of voters within the Republican coalition that wants to ban all abortions, and will never be satisfied with intermediate steps. One can say something similar about the pro-choice side. But if you make Americans choose between a slippery slope that leads to treating every miscarriage as a potential crime scene and one that leads to infanticide, they’re going to choose the latter.
And it’s not as if most Republicans are themselves motivated by the abortion issue, with GOP voters consistently ranking it as much less important than things like the economy, immigration, and even “threats to democracy.” As with Democrats and affirmative action, Republicans have been pushed by a small group of noisy activists to take an unpopular position that isn’t even a top issue for their own voters.
One major difference between abortion and affirmative action is that only Democrats run on their winning issue and achieve electoral victories by making it more salient. You can try to think of reasons why, but my preferred explanation is that this is just another data point proving that liberals have higher IQs.
Of course, people shouldn’t abandon their moral convictions just because they’re unpopular. The masses can be wrong, and they often are. But conservatives should be clear-eyed about the consequences of whatever path they take. The idea that life begins at conception has all kinds of implications that make voters in a rapidly secularizing country uncomfortable, and they will be more likely to reject Republican candidates as long as they signal that fundamentalists who hold such a position are an influential part of their coalition.
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