It’s the Election, Stupid

Bernie Sanders has an article in The Guardian saying it’s a mistake for Democrats to make abortion central to their closing argument for the 2022 election. He’s wrong. Let me explain why.

First, Sanders prefaces his argument with all sorts of caveats. He’s 100% pro-choice; he hates the Dobbs decision; abortion should definitely be part of their message. But the closing argument should be on the economy and economic justice. That’s his argument.

This argument will be grist for those in the Democratic Party who think that Sanders and the Sanders wing of the party see economics and mixed economy social justice as the essence of real progressivism while things like abortion are important but secondary — both substantively and politically. That’s a critique and intramural argument among Democrats I’m not going to resolve here. But my disagreement with Sanders is more focused.

I’m seeing a lot of people arguing, well, you can’t just talk about abortion. Not everyone cares that much about abortion rights. You have to make your case about the economy.

This all seems like straw man arguments and a significant amount of people talking past each other. No one is saying that abortion rights will be the sole or primary focus of Democratic politics going forward. There’s jobs and economics, civil rights, climate, guns. These groups want their top issue to be as high as possible on the party pecking order and that’s natural. But that isn’t what this is about. It’s more specific and contigent.

It’s also not like Democrats won’t be discussing anything but abortion for the next four weeks. They need to be hitting student debt relief, pot decriminalization, climate, the dangers of Trumpism, jobs created by Biden’s legislation. The question is focus.

We’re in the midst of a very close election. The Democratic Party supports lots of different things, all of which are important. But you want to close an election by pushing up the salience of an issue where you’re as popular as possible. Right now, virtually all polls show Republicans beating Democrats on the economy. That’s not good. My own general sense is that it is driven by two factors: being the incumbent party during a period of economic upheaval, albeit with very low unemployment and some specific constituencies who believe Democrats focused on COVID prevention too much relative to jobs and economic vitality. Beyond this, Democrats definitely have work to do on their economic message.

But those three factors are not going to change over four weeks. We are at the stage of the election where those basic assumptions and attitudes are mostly baked in. The question is this: which of the big issues in the campaign is going to be top of mind for the relatively small percentage of undecided voters as they make their final decision. On this it’s a no brainer. If it’s inflation and immigration, Democrats lose. If it’s abortion rights, they win. An overwhelming majority of Americans support the Democrats on this issue and a high percentage do so viscerally.

While Dobbs was a catastrophe for America it was an electoral godsend for Democrats. In a midterm like this often there’s no issue where the public overwhelmingly and intensely supports the incumbent party. 2022 is different.

Some Democrats are more focused on economic justice; others are more focused on bodily and reproductive autonomy and gender equality. But that’s not an intra-party tension Democrats need to or really can afford to litigate at the moment. Right now, in this election, abortion is Democrats’ strongest electoral card. So they need to raise its salience for voters as much as possible when the final decisions are being made.

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