There is plausibility to this notion. The consensus narrative goes something like this: After Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, it triggered passionate opposition from the pro-life constituency, while pro-choicers grew complacent as the years went by. Abortion foes consistently were more focused on the issue — and the allied issue of Supreme Court appointments. Now, with Roe on life support, the pro-choice majority will take to the polls in greater numbers. In Virginia, ex-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, in a close race to regain his old job, is already making the abortion issue a central argument in his campaign.
But based on the last four decades, this argument may not be all that solid after all.
For one thing, it turns out that abortion was not really an instant trigger for conservative evangelical political engagement. As POLITICO detailed in 2014, the evangelical community was by and large supportive of abortion rights for years after Roe v. Wade was decided. It was only when powerful figures on the right saw abortion as a way to build support for their real agenda — private segregated schools — that Jerry Falwell embraced the cause.
More significantly, there is good reason to question the notion that the Republican embrace of hard-line anti-abortion politics will hurt their political prospects. Back in 1980, the Republican National Convention discarded its “we respect both sides” stance and embraced a plank essentially banning abortion for any reason at all. Further, it endorsed a “Human Life Amendment” to the Constitution which would in effect have banned all abortions nationwide. Some in the party saw this as a political disaster. In a fiery speech at the Republican National Committee, GOP co-chair Mary Crisp denounced the abortion plank (and the abandonment of support for the Equal Rights Amendment), saying the move “could prevent the party from electing the next president of the United States.”
Spoiler Alert: Reagan won 44 states, a 10-point poplar vote plurality and 489 electoral votes.
That same abortion plank has been in the Republican platform ever since. It did not prevent Republican candidates from winning the White House six times (albeit with popular vote losses in two cases). More importantly, there has been scant evidence of a surging pro-choice vote even in the face of flagrant provocations. Donald Trump named three ardent abortion foes to the Supreme Court, in one case after Republicans had denied President Barack Obama’s nominee, and in another by ramming through Amy Coney Barrett with weeks to go before the election. What happened at the polls last November? Fifty-one percent of voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and they voted for Biden by a 3-1 margin. Forty-two percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases; they voted 3-1 for Trump. When you throw in the possibility that Trump voters were less likely to participate in such polls, the issue looks very much like a wash. This, in turn, may reflect broader attitudes toward abortion that have remained essentially consistent for decades; while only barely one in five Americans favor a total ban on abortion, a plurality favors abortion rights with more, not fewer restrictions.
As for the prospect that Trump’s full-scale (and highly transactional) embrace of the anti-abortion position might drive some social moderates in the GOP away, exit polls show that Trump received 94 percent of the vote of self-identified Republicans.
And herein lies a principal reason for skepticism about the power of the abortion issue to move votes: the political polarization at the heart of our current politics. Unlike past decades, party identification is now the most powerful indicator of how a voter will choose; once you’ve signed up with your team, or tribe, or sect, it takes far more than it once did for you to abandon that tribe at the polls. John F. Kennedy famously said, “sometimes party loyalty asks too much.” But these days it speaks with a roar. If the behavior of Trump in the White House over four years was not enough to drive significant numbers of Republicans from the party’s ranks, it’s hard to imagine that an issue like abortion rights will.
There is, of course, another possibility for a big political impact: the threat to abortion rights might mobilize an army of new voters whose complacency about the issue has now been shattered. That mobilization effort was at the heart of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign, and it came up short. Beyond that, the Republican campaign across states to restrict voting access, and the likelihood of gerrymandered districts in so many key states where GOP legislatures and governors rule, mean that even energetic registration and turnout drives may be limited by the use (and abuse) of raw political power.
The conservative majority on the Supreme Court might also choose to further decimate Roe without formally overturning it in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Such a move might shrink the political backlash and undermine any mobilization effort at the polls.
All of this, of course, could be rendered inoperative by sheer outrage. What Texas and the Supreme Court did with the end run around state responsibility, the “deputizing” of private citizens to harass and financially ruin abortion providers, may evoke a sense of anger that would indeed change the political landscape. But it would be an exercise in overreach to presume that from history.