We were told that abortion would not be a major issue in the midterm elections. Over the past weeks, pundits and political strategists alike suggested that the outrage over the Dobbs decision had been momentary, capricious; that by election day, women would forget. They insisted that the surge in new voter registrations among women was a fluke, or irrelevant.
Ahead of the election, it became conventional wisdom among a kind of self-serious, mostly male political commentator to insist that not only were the Democrats doomed, they had doomed themselves, specifically, by talking about abortion too much. The party had dragged itself down with a social issue that was ultimately not very important, we were told. The Democrats were going to lose, and it was going to be because they had spent too much time catering to the flighty and unserious demands of feminists.
Instead, abortion rights proved a hugely motivating force for voters in Tuesday’s midterms. A still-potent anger at the Dobbs decision drove women and young people to the polls, propelled the most vocally pro-choice Democratic candidates to victory, delivered decisive wins for abortion-rights advocates in every state referendum on the issue, and helped to dramatically improve the Democrats’ performance in what was supposed to be a “bloodbath” election favoring Republicans.
We now head into 2023 with Democrats holding onto a chance to keep the Senate; if they lose the House, they will only lose it by a handful of seats. There was no bloodbath; there was barely a paper cut. Abortion rights, and the women voters who wanted to defend them, are a big part of why.
None of this was what was supposed to happen. To hear the Republicans tell it, they didn’t think that the Dobbs decision would cost them at all in this year’s midterms. As recently as last week, party strategists and rightwing pundits were projecting wild confidence, assuring writers like the New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells that the post-Dobbs moment of anger and energy that animated Democratic voters had passed – and that it had not dimmed Republican prospects.
“In the end, Republicans didn’t find a way through the political fact that many of the voters they wanted to win were against them on abortion so much as wait it out,” Wallace-Wells wrote last Friday, channeling the shrugging attitude toward the abortion issue that had been conveyed to him by Republican insiders. “They simply absorbed the political hit and moved on.”
Even the polling, which throughout the summer and early fall suggested that abortion remained a motivating issue for voters, was explained away, dismissed as a mere “blue mirage”. One Republican strategist hypothesized that Democrats, consumed with emotionalism, were answering their telephones more often, in the hope of being polled. “Answering a political poll itself became a kind of expression of political identity.”
Others, like the Washington Examiner’s David Keene, claimed that the large numbers of women voters claiming that abortion would affect their vote were in fact women who were anti-abortion, who would enthusiastically vote to support abortion bans. In retrospect, of course, this seems like risible wishful thinking by Republicans, the kind of thing one can only believe if you live in a deep Republican partisan bubble, and don’t often talk to women. Or maybe it was the kind of bluster that’s meant to intimidate political opponents into thinking that the Republicans were more confident ahead of Tuesday’s elections than they really were.
But if Republicans were just bluffing when they said that they didn’t think abortion rights would impact the midterms, many prominent Democrats seem to have believed them. In the weeks ahead of the vote, a series of highly visible party insiders and off-the record insider sources were preemptively blaming the Democrats’ anticipated loss on their supposed overfocus on abortion.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wrote a column entitled “Democrats shouldn’t focus only on abortion in the midterms. That’s a mistake”. Sanders’ piece denounced the party’s supposed overfocus on abortion as both politically unwise and morally treacherous. “While the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy.”
This sentiment was not confined to Sanders and his ilk on the left. On the other side of the party’s political spectrum, the centrist Democratic strategist and PR executive Hilary Rosen appeared on television to lambast the party for paying too much attention to so-called social issues. “I think we’re going to have a bad night,” Rosen said on CNN. “When voters tell you over and over and over again that they care mostly about the economy, listen to them.”
In predicting a so-called “red tsunami,” in late October Josh Kraushaar, of Axios, appealed to the data. “Biden delivered a speech Tuesday pledging to codify Roe as his first act if Democrats elect more senators and keep the House,” he wrote. “But there’s worry in Democratic circles that abortion-centric messaging is keeping candidates from talking about the economy. A new Monmouth poll found 63% of respondents wish Biden would give more attention to ‘issues that are important to your family’ – including 36% of Democrats.”
It seems almost insultingly remedial to have to explain why this framing – the notion that somehow the midterms could either be about the economy or they could be about abortion – is so wrongheaded. Because, of course, abortion access is central to the economic prospects of working people. But to acknowledge this, you have to acknowledge something that still seems incomprehensible and out of reach for many of our most esteemed shapers of political opinion: that when we think and speak of economic and political subjects, we are speaking of women.
It is women whose prospects shape the economy, women who are workers and consumers; it is women who dream to advance economically, to retire or finish school or buy a house; it is women whose economic prospects, along with their health, dignity and freedom, have been curtailed by Dobbs.
The stigma surrounding abortion helps to marginalize the issue in the American political imagination; the silence surrounding it conceals just how common abortion is, and how central abortion access is to women’s lives. One in four American women will have an abortion by age 45; many, many more of them know what it is to fear the upheaval of an unplanned pregnancy, to pee on a stick in the loneliness of a bathroom stall as your dreams hang in the balance.
To say that this experience of hope, aspiration, anticipation, fear is somehow not as serious as the dreams and aspirations of men – to say that it is somehow not an “issue that is important to your family” – is at best to misunderstand the problem and at worst to suggest that women’s lives are not of political concern at all. If the midterm results are any indication, American women voters disagree.
Moira Donegan is a Guardian US columnist