Abortion boosts Democrats at the polls – again. Will it help Biden?

Abortion boosts Democrats at the polls – again. Will it help Biden?

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In Virginia, where Democrats made abortion the No. 1 issue in state legislative races, the party won control of both chambers – a blow to GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s potential presidential ambitions. 

And in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, pro-abortion-rights candidates prevailed. Kentucky, which backed Mr. Trump by 26 percentage points in 2020, was especially heartening to Democrats, as Gov. Andy Beshear won reelection easily. With a reputation for effective governance, the pragmatic Democrat offers his party a model for how to succeed in a conservative state. 

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Ever since the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to abortion in June of last year, reproductive rights have driven Democratic activism, setting Republicans back on their heels. Notably, Mr. Trump has come out against bans on abortion at six weeks’ gestation, calling them “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake” – drawing rare criticism from some fellow Republicans. Many women don’t know they’re pregnant at six weeks. 

Virginia was seen as a test case for a “middle ground” – a 15-week ban, with exceptions for rape, incest, and to protect the life of the mother, which is what Governor Youngkin promised if Republicans had won control of the state legislature. But on Tuesday night, that approach did not look like a political winner. 

“Republicans don’t like talking about [abortion], but they’ve had to deal with it,” says Larry Sabato, a veteran political analyst at the University of Virginia. “That’s why they came up with this 15-week plan. They hoped it would seem like a compromise.” 

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley has tried to strike a conciliatory tone on abortion, calling for “consensus” – even as she labels herself “strongly pro-life.” With the former South Carolina governor’s poll numbers rising, all eyes will be on her Wednesday night in the third GOP presidential debate. 

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In Pennsylvania, a battleground in presidential elections, the Democrat prevailed Tuesday in a state Supreme Court race that focused in part on abortion rights. Democrats now have a 5-2 edge on the state’s highest court, which also played a critical role in litigation around the 2020 election and could do so again in 2024. 

Democrats can certainly take heart from Tuesday’s results, as well as other lower-turnout elections since 2016 – including the 2018 and 2022 midterms. But the 2024 presidential election, with Mr. Trump himself likely on the ballot and spurring turnout, will be another matter.

The challenge for President Biden, come 2024, will be to energize Democratic voters. And right now, voters seem to have less positive views of the president than of his party generally. Overall, 71% percent of registered voters in six key swing states say Mr. Biden is too old to be an effective president, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll. Even among Democrats, that figure is 51%. 

Abortion, along with the possibility of another Trump term, is likely to be a major talking point for Democrats in 2024. The Times/Siena poll showed abortion to be Mr. Biden’s strongest issue, beating Mr. Trump by 9 percentage points. Mr. Biden also wins on handling of democracy by a slimmer 3 percentage points.

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But presidential elections typically turn on the economy, and Mr. Biden can’t count on concerns about abortion rights or the future of American democracy to save him. In the six battleground states – Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, and Georgia – voters said they trusted Mr. Trump on the economy over Mr. Biden, 59% to 39%. 

Political analysts stress that the election is a year away, and polling today isn’t determinative. But it still serves as a warning to Democrats that they have their work cut out. The party may get help in 2024 from planned abortion referenda on the ballot in several battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, and Nevada. Those could help boost Democratic turnout. 

“For most Americans, Roe v. Wade is the standard,” says Democratic strategist Karen Finney, referring to the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion until the point of fetal viability. “People believe the woman should decide with her doctor, her family, her God – not the government.”

In a presidential election, however, policy issues can be subsumed by voters’ impressions of candidates, including individual characteristics such as age. That is Mr. Biden’s top liability.

For now, though, analysts warn against fixating too closely on polls – even high-quality polls, like the New York Times/Siena survey. 

“It’s just a measure of today,” says Dr. Sabato. “It’s not predictive at all. I tend to toss these things out. I read them, then I forget about them.”


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