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“Women’s Issues” In The 2022 US Midterms

08 Jun 2022
By Dr Sara Chatfield
Bans Off Our Bodies! Rally in Pittsburgh 3 May 2022.
Source: Mark Dixon.

Overturning Roe v. Wade would have significant impacts for pregnant people. However, the Supreme Court’s decision likely won’t play a pivotal factor in the 2022 midterms.

The leaked opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court signalling an overturning of Roe v. Wade has raised questions about the impact of abortion politics and other “women’s issues” on the upcoming midterm elections in November 2022. If the Supreme Court does reject a constitutionally protected right to abortion, will that help Democrats in Congress who might champion such a right legislatively? Will Republicans benefit from accomplishing a policy goal decades in the making? Or will this and other women’s issues have little impact on congressional elections?

Defining “Women’s Issues”

To answer these questions, it is first important to define what is meant by “women’s issues.” Although abortion initially seems like it falls under this label, in fact men and women have broadly similar views when it comes to abortion. Of course, abortion policy has the most practical impact on people who can become pregnant – most of whom are women. But it is not the case that abortion politics itself drives differences in vote choice by gender.

That being said, women are more likely to identify as Democrats and vote for Democratic candidates, and there are gender differences in public opinion on other gender-related issues such as support for paid family leave. Dr. Mary-Kate Lizotte finds that there are also sizeable gender gaps on issues that we might not immediately identify as gendered, and these differences in policy preferences help explain women’s greater support for the Democratic party.  For example, women are more likely to support gun control, oppose the death penalty, and support government spending on social programs.

Understanding Midterm Elections in the United States

“Midterm elections” are the congressional elections that take place in non-presidential election years in the United States.  Because there is no presidential race, voter turnout tends to be lower. In analysing these elections, political scientists typically look at factors such as the performance of the economy, the popularity of the incumbent president, and the number of seats currently held by the president’s party in Congress.  These factors tend to predict midterm losses or gains to a greater extent than specific policy issues.

For 2022, this means that Biden’s low approval among the public and various indicators of a weak economy may lead to a substantial loss of seats in Congress for Democrats. Although the predictions vary depending on which specific measures of economic performance are used, generally Democrats’ prospects for retaining their majority in the House are poor. Predictions based on structural factors like presidential approval and the state of the economy are supported by polling. When voters are asked about which party they plan to support in the upcoming midterm elections, Republicans have the advantage.

The Leaked Opinion from the Supreme Court

Overall, specific policy issues outside of the economy aren’t major factors that political scientists look to when predicting and analysing midterm elections. Could the salience of abortion rights from a landmark Supreme Court case matter this time around?  In a highly unusual leaked opinion first reported by Politico, the Supreme Court could be poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. Justice Samuel Alito, author of the leaked opinion, used sweeping language in the draft, writing that “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start.”

It is important to note that the leaked opinion is only a draft and justices could change their votes. Even if they do not, some of the language in the draft opinion could be revised and softened.  But, if a substantively similar ruling is ultimately the official opinion by the Court, the impact on abortion policy in the United States would be significant. Analysis by the Guttmacher Institute indicates that such a ruling would likely result in abortion bans in twenty-six states.

Would such a ruling have an impact on the 2022 midterms? Democrats are certainly fundraising on the leaked opinion and would certainly continue to do so if the final ruling looks similar. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York has called on Americans who support abortion rights to “cast your ballots this November.”

In the leaked opinion itself, Justice Alito discusses electoral politics, writing that overturning Roe would “allow [] women on both sides of the abortion issue to seek to affect the legislative process by influencing public opinion, lobbying legislators, voting, and running for office.” He also notes that “women are not without electoral or political power,” and they turn out to vote at higher rates than men. Multiple surveys also find that – in a change from historical trends – Democrats are more likely to rank abortion as an important issue in general and specifically when it comes to their vote in the midterms.

Overall though, it’s not at all clear that abortion policies, or any other specific issue that might fall under the umbrella of “women’s issues,” is likely to have a substantial impact on the 2022 midterms in the United States. There is not a large gender gap on abortion beliefs. Turning to partisanship, even if Democrats care more strongly about abortion rights than in the past, many would likely have been voting for Democratic candidates anyway. The economy and approval of Biden will remain major factors for voters. If anything, the ruling likely has the highest stakes for state legislative races, as state houses will decide abortion policies if Roe is indeed overturned.

Dr. Sara Chatfield is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver. Her research interests include women in U.S. political history, gender and legislative politics, and political behaviour.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.