Two years after Joe Biden and the Democrats’ victory in 2020, American citizens headed to the polls once again for the midterm elections. Tensions were high, with a ‘red wave’ of Republican support expected as a result of the incumbent’s curse and the worsening economic situation. However, in reality, the outcome was not as bad as originally feared. The surge in Republican backing never materialised, and the Democrats held on despite economic troubles. There has been much discussion over why this occurred, and why the economy- which tends to be the most important factor for American voters- did not seem to matter as much this time. This has provoked the question, what has provoked this shift in the American perspective? Why did the Democrats not crash and burn?
Overall, despite the Republican Party taking the House, Biden’s party retained control of the Senate, meaning that they still hold significant power in the legislature. Many are blaming Donald Trump, arguing that his role within the Republican party campaign machine hindered its success, with the “Candidates who embraced Trump’s MAGA agenda, in part to win his endorsement, underperformed in some of the most high-profile races”. Minority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has also faced criticism for Republican losses, given this race was one in which it should have been easier for them to make gains.
Nevertheless, there was another factor that mobilised voters in a way that has not been seen for a long time. The Supreme Court overturning of the historical Roe v. Wade ruling in June transformed reproductive rights within the United States, with access to abortions no longer protected by the constitution. This had a seismic impact across the country and beyond, as people watched the US- which has often been seen as the ‘leader of the free world’- strip women of their right to bodily autonomy. Despite this, when it came to the midterms, political commentators were not originally convinced that this would have a significant impact in preventing the red ‘tsunami’, as it was thought that low economic productivity and poor approval ratings for Joe Biden would be more influential. However, in the aftermath it was realised that the overturning of Roe v. Wade had more of a negative impact on Republican party success than they imagined.
In what way did this issue shape the outcome of the midterms? Traditionally, the Democrats suffer more from low turnout, due to non-voters usually being “disproportionately young, nonwhite and low-income”, demographics more likely to vote Democrat. However this time, there was a notable surge in voter mobilisation, with surveys showing that in the month before the election, half of registered voters said “they are more motivated to vote in this upcoming election compared with past elections”. This mobilisation was stark amongst young voters, especially women and those of child-bearing age. The youth turnout was the second highest seen in almost thirty years, with an estimated “27% of youth (ages 18-29) cast[ing] a ballot in 2022”. Post mortem analysis of election results highlighted that these young voters overwhelmingly supported the Democrats.
When you look at what motivated these demographics in this election, it is stark that for many, abortion rights were key. 50% of voters outlined that the overturning of Roe v. Wade “made them more motivated to vote, up from 43% who said the same in July and an increase of 13 percentage points from a similar question in May”. Specifically, 59% of women between 18-49 years old outlined Roe v. Wade as a key factor which encouraged them to vote. Additionally, those living in states where abortions are now illegal were also more likely to state this as a key consideration.
It is clear that Roe v. Wade is not something that has been forever rendered to the history books, but rather the question of abortion rights is becoming more important. Its political relevance is increasing, with voters citing it as more influential when determining their political leanings just before the election than at the time of the ruling. From what has been seen in the last week, the economy and public opinion on Joe Biden has not harmed the Democrats in the way they feared. Rather, the Republican party’s decision to position itself as the anti-abortion party (with the help of the work of Republican-appointed Court Justices) has already had a negative impact from an electoral perspective. The overturning of Roe v. Wade has had a profound impact on voter mobilisation, and it is clear that this is disproportionately benefitting the Democrats. Given that the importance of this issue in the public consciousness only seems to be growing, it is now probable that Republicans will be suffering the fall out well into the next election, as the post-Roe v. Wade era truly begins.