This idea is plausible. The consensus narrative goes something like this: After Roe versus Wade Decided in 1973, it sparked passionate opposition in the pro-life election as the pro-voters became complacent over the years. Opponents of abortion consistently focused more on the issue – and the related issue of the appointment of the Supreme Court. Now that Roe is life sustaining, the majority of voters will vote in greater numbers. In Virginia, ex-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is in a close race to get back into his old job, is already making abortion a central argument in his campaign.
But based on the past four decades, that argument may not hold out as well.
For one, it turns out that abortion wasn’t really an immediate trigger for conservative evangelical political engagement. As POLITICO pointed out in 2014, years later the evangelical community broadly supported the right to abortion Roe versus Wade was decided. It was only when powerful right-wing figures saw abortion as a way of gaining support for their real goals – private segregated schools – that Jerry Falwell embraced it.
More importantly, there are good reasons to question the notion that Republican adoption of tough anti-abortion policies will hurt their political prospects. In 1980, the Republican National Convention abandoned its “We respect both sides” attitude and passed a plank essentially prohibiting abortion for any reason. In addition, she advocated a “Human Life Amendment” to the constitution, which would in fact have banned all abortions nationwide. Some in the party saw this as a political disaster. In a fiery speech to the Republican National Committee GOP co-chair Mary Crisp condemned the abortion plank (and abandoning support for the equality amendment), saying the move could “prevent the party from electing the next president of the United States”.
Spoiler Alert: Reagan won 44 states, a majority of 10 people and 489 votes.
The same abortion plank has been on the Republican platform since then. It did not prevent Republican candidates from winning the White House six times (albeit with two losses of votes). More importantly, even in the face of blatant provocations, there is little evidence of a growing pro-choice vote. Donald Trump called three ardent anti-abortion opponents to the Supreme Court, in one after Republicans rejected President Barack Obama’s candidacy and in another by ransacking Amy Coney Barrett weeks before the election. What happened in the elections last November? 51 percent of voters said abortions should be legal in all or most of the cases, and they voted 3-1 for Biden. 42 percent said it should be illegal in all or most of the cases; You voted 3-1 for Trump. When you factor in the possibility that Trump voters are less likely to take part in such polls, the problem looks very much like a wash. This, in turn, may reflect a broader attitude towards abortion that has remained essentially constant for decades; While just under one in five Americans advocates a total ban on abortion, a majority advocate abortion rights with more, not fewer restrictions.
As for the prospect that Trump’s sweeping (and highly transactional) adoption of the anti-abortion position could drive away some social moderates in the GOP, exit polls show Trump garnered 94 percent of the self-proclaimed Republican vote.
And this is one of the main reasons for skepticism about the electoral power of the abortion issue: the political polarization at the center of our current politics. Unlike in previous decades, party identification is now the strongest indicator of how a voter will vote; Once you have signed up with your team, tribe or sect, it will take much longer than it used to be to leave that tribe in the elections. John F. Kennedy famously said, “Sometimes party loyalty is too much.” But these days it speaks with roar. If Trump’s behavior in the White House over four years was not enough to drive significant numbers of Republicans from the ranks of the party, it is hard to imagine that an issue like abortion law will.
There is, of course, another option with great political impact: the threat of abortion law could mobilize an army of new voters whose complacency on the issue has now been shaken. These mobilization efforts were at the heart of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign and fell short. In addition, the Republican state campaign to restrict electoral access and the likelihood of orderly districts gaining raw political power in so many major states governed by GOP lawmakers and governors.
The Conservative majority in the Supreme Court could also choose to further decimate Roe without it in the case of Women’s health organization Dobbs v. Jackson. Such a move could reduce the political backlash and undermine any mobilization efforts at the polls.
All of this could of course be overridden by mere indignation. What Texas and the Supreme Court did in ending the state responsibility to “represent” individuals to harass and financially ruin abortion providers could create a sense of anger that would actually change the political landscape. But it would be an exaggeration to guess this from history.