Arnon Mishkin: Could abortion decide the 2020 election? Both sides should be careful what they wish for

With the GOP success in confirming judges – and recent moves by states such as Alabama and Missouri to restrict abortion, while New York and possibly Virginia, expand access – abortion may become a much bigger issue in the 2020 election than it has been in the past. Recent polling about abortion suggests these moves may have a profound impact on voting – just not necessarily the way each supportive group would like.

In general, most Americans support keeping abortion legal, in line with the Supreme Court’s decision. According to the Fox News Voter Analysis of the 2018 electorate, 61 percent of voters believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 39 percent think it should be illegal in all or most cases.  Asking specifically about Roe v. Wade, a recent Fox News survey found about 6 in 10 voters want the decision kept as is, while 2 in 10 want it overturned.

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As a political issue, however, abortion has helped Republicans more than Democrats. The issue motivates those who oppose the status quo more than those who support it. In Fox’s 2018 poll, only 2 percent of voters said abortion was the most important issue facing the country. But among those, almost 80 percent voted Republican.

But laws in New York to keep abortion legal in all cases (even just before birth), and in Alabama and Missouri to make abortion illegal in all cases (even due to rape or incest) may change attitudes.

Fox segments voters into four categories: “legal in all cases,” “legal in most cases,” “illegal in most cases,” and “illegal in all cases.” Nationally, a 60 percent majority falls into the two “legal” camps, while the rest fall into the two “illegal” camps. But when looking at the results by state, one can see why the Republicans have been successful with winning presidential elections. Not only is the issue primarily motivating to “pro-life” voters, but also it is an issue where voters are more divided the further one goes from the liberal coasts.

The map below uses the 2018 poll to show whether voters in each state clearly side with the pro-choice or pro-life side. For simplicity, I’ve used the traditional red-blue, Republican-Democratic colors: red signifying the most pro-life states and blue the most pro-choice states.

The blue states have only a third or fewer voters saying they want abortion made illegal in “all or most” cases. The red states have almost half in support of making abortion illegal. Purple states are closer to the national average (roughly 60 percent legal and 40 percent illegal).

The political challenge each party faces is that emerging state laws could change people’s views. New York-type laws that permit legal abortion until just before birth would tend to be opposed by people who say abortion should be legal in most (not all) cases. President Trump’s claim that the law permits a mother to kill a newborn is factually inaccurate, but close enough for over-heated political rhetoric. If framed along the lines of the New York law, overall abortion attitudes may change, and that could affect voting behavior across a wide swath of states.

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I estimate about half of the group that now says abortion should be “legal in most cases” would be uncomfortable with the New York-type laws. And when you look at the size of that group by state, combined with those who want abortion illegal, one finds a large map of states where rhetoric focused on such opposition could work.

Map #2 shows “Appeal of a Campaign Based Against New York-type Laws.” The states where less than 45 percent oppose such laws are blue, those states where the group is significantly larger than 55 percent are red and those in the middle are purple. States that the Democrats need in 2020 – including Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the states in the upper Midwest, are purple or even red. In other words, a campaign built around opposition to the New York law becomes helpful to Republicans.

By contrast, rhetoric around the Alabama and Missouri laws, which outlaw and enact penalties for performing abortions, could help Democrats. In map #3, those favoring abortion remaining legal are combined with half the group that wants abortion illegal in most cases. States that Republicans must win are colored purple, meaning that between 60 and 70 percent of voters appear opposed to such laws. Only Alabama and Mississippi remain “Red,” but even there, 60 percent appear to oppose the restrictive law.

Now, this is not to say Alabama is likely to go Democratic in 2020, nor that Illinois is likely to go Republican – but it suggests victory for abortion rights or anti-abortion advocates could carry a heavy toll for their traditional political side.

Be careful what you wish for.

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