Looking at the Polls In Light of the Abortion Rights Backlash

NEW YORK CITY - JUNE 24: People gather at Union Square to protest against the the Supreme Court's decision in the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health case on June 24, 2022 in the Manhattan borough of New York City. The Co... NEW YORK CITY - JUNE 24: People gather at Union Square to protest against the the Supreme Court's decision in the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health case on June 24, 2022 in the Manhattan borough of New York City. The Court's decision in the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health case overturns the landmark 50-year-old Roe v Wade case, removing a federal right to an abortion. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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Over the last couple months I’ve been beating the drum over the critical importance of putting Roe v. Wade at the center of the midterm election and doing so with a unified pledge to pass a Roe law in January 2023 if Democrats hold the House and add two Senate seats. There’s been some but still not nearly enough progress on getting Democrats to make this pledge or at least to say they’d support such a bill if it comes to a vote. So I wanted to check in to see if polls suggest any of this is having an impact.

The short answer is, yeah, some impact. Not a lot. And not nearly enough yet to get the job done. But it is having an impact. Let’s start by remembering that this was always going to be very challenging because of all the forces Democrats have arrayed against them. Indeed, the brightest signs are on the Senate front. There are two things are working in Democrats favor. One is rising support for Democrats generally post-Dobbs. The other is that like in 2010 and 2012 Republicans are nominating a number of candidates who are making things considerably easier for Democrats than they might otherwise be. Not easy, mind you: easier. Trump, for instance, is more or less solely responsible for Mehmet Oz and Herschel Walker being Republican nominees in Pennsylvania and Georgia. Nondescript, non-caricature Republicans would have made those races much more challenging for Democrats. At this point I would say I’m cautiously optimistic about Democrats retaining control of the Senate; adding two seats is within reach, if still a real challenge.

The House is the challenge. And it’s a big one. But here we can see some movement in the Democrats’ direction. Four recently conducted congressional generic ballot polls came out today, each of which showed Democrats either tied or a few points ahead of Republicans: Economist/YouGov D+3; Yahoo/YouGov D+4; Politico/Morning Consult D+4; NYT/Siena D+1. (To get an apples-to-apples comparison I’ve included the number for registered voters rather than likely voters or adults in each case.) Here’s the important caveat — one that is very important to internalize as the campaign season gets underway. When Democrats and Republicans are tied on the congressional generic ballot, Democrats lose and sometimes badly. There are many reasons for that — gerrymandering, the urban/rural divide, different turnout levels. The relevant fact is that it is the fact. You really want to see Democrats ahead on this number by at least three points to have a realistic expectation that Democrats will hold the House after the election is over.

Both RCP and 538 currently show Republicans up by 1.9. That’s because of a mix of a lot of recent GOP-leaning polls and the fact that today was a pretty solid day for Dems. What all of this amounts to is that there’s been progress for the Democrats on this front, but not yet game-changing progress.

A good look under the hood comes from the write up of the NYT/Siena poll by Nate Cohn in The New York Times. This is a poll that did a lot of refactoring after 2016 and has had a good record since. As Cohn explains, most signs point to a blowout for the Democrats. President Biden is really unpopular. Voters think the economy is bad — largely because of high inflation. Those two numbers would normally spell catastrophe for congressional Democrats. But as Cohn notes, that’s not what the poll shows. It shows a pretty tight and competitive race for Congress — “a surprisingly close race for control of Congress,” as Cohn puts it. And that’s being driven by the politics of abortion and guns, particularly among college-educated white voters. Cohn highlights one very striking finding: Democrats now have higher levels of support among white college graduates than non-white voters generally — a datapoint largely driven by Hispanic voters. As Cohn aptly puts it: “The results suggest that the wave of mass shootings and the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade have at least temporarily insulated the Democrats from an otherwise hostile national political environment while energizing the party’s predominantly liberal activist base.”

As Cohn implies, much hinges on whether Dobbs and gun massacre fatigue are giving Democrats a temporary or marginal respite or signaling a shift in the tide of the election. On balance, what does it all mean? I’d say there’s certainly not enough evidence to say making the election about Roe will work. But there’s real evidence in these numbers that it could.

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