Authors: Mike Alvarez, Daniel Ebanks, Claudia Kann, Jacob Morrier
Later this fall, American voters will be casting ballots in consequential elections, in particular for the presidency. While the exact choices voters will have in the presidential race in the fall of 2024 will be determined in the next few months, most likely President Biden will be facing former President Trump in the 2024 presidential race.
Research that we just published in PLOS ONE (here) suggests that the evidence we have from the 2022 midterms shows that Biden’s path to victory likely necessitates that his campaign focus on a key issue — abortion.
This is important for the Biden campaign, and Democrats in general, to hear at this point in the 2024 presidential campaign. Recent polling from early November 2023 reported in the New York Times argued that Biden was trailing Trump in Nevada, Georgia, Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Only in Wisconsin did this polling indicate that Biden might currently lead Trump, and by only a small 2% margin.
The pollsters argued that Trump’s lead in the battleground states was largely the result of more voters trusting him to handle the economy, immigration and foreign affairs. And that Biden was losing support from core Democratic groups, especially racial and ethnic minority voters.
These polls sent shockwaves through Democratic circles, how could Biden be trailing Trump in these states? After all, the economy seems to be on solid ground in the fall of 2023, Trump is facing numerous indictments, and some of the other Republican presidential candidates have spent the summer and fall attacking Trump.
Just a few short weeks ago, political observers sifted through the 2023 off-year elections to see if we could glean any insight into what voters might be thinking before the presidential election begins to fully take form. The 2023 results in Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky suggest a political environment where abortion rights remain a motivating force in American politics, and the issue serves as a powerful countervailing force inhibiting Republicans electoral gains against a historically unpopular Democratic president.
Abortion referenda which enshrine abortion rights at the state level have passed even in red states such as Ohio, with double-digit support. Abortion rights proponents won on these issues despite a multi-million dollar campaign against them.
At the same time, Democratic incumbents regained control of the House of Delegates in Virginia in a campaign notable for its emphasis on the Republican Governor’s intent to roll back abortion rights. The GOP experimented with proposing a compromise position on abortion, banning it only after 15 weeks. Their attempts at a “reasonable” compromise were rebuked by voters, who handed control of the lower house of their state legislature to Democrats.
In Kentucky, a deeply red state at the national level, the Democratic governor who had previously won election by less than a percent in a blue wave in 2018 managed to expand on his previous margin of victory to nearly 4 percentage points in a GOP-friendly year with an unpopular Democrat in the White House. Again, he emphasized his commitment to abortion rights, persuading voters who normally vote Republican to cast a ballot for a Democrat.
These electoral results suggest the durability of abortion rights as a potent motivator for Democratic-leaning voters and swing voters to turn out to elect Democrats, even if they might otherwise prefer Republican governance. Our own work found that in the 2022 midterm election, voters reacted strongly to the Dobbs opinion, which raised the importance of abortion rights and motivated political action in the form of turning out to vote for candidates who supported abortion rights.
We found that these effects were concentrated among the most persuadable voters – these are precisely voters whose support both Democratic and Republican candidates will be vying to earn as the 2024 election campaign heats up. We speculate that so long as abortion access remains curtailed in Republican-governed states, the issue will be a potent wedge to persuade voters to elect Democrats, even at the national level, even in an otherwise pro-Republican political environment. Such behavior would be consistent with our findings on the 2022 elections and the recent anecdotal evidence from the 2023 elections.
Pro-life policies are central to Republican elites and their voters; unfortunately their views appear out-of-step with decisive voters precisely on an issue these voters find deeply important. This poses a conundrum for Republicans entering 2024: they yearn to retake control against an unpopular Democratic incumbent, but they first need to either convince decisive voters that they offer a reasonable compromise on the issue or that they will not aggressively pursue the unpopular beliefs.
Yet, with ever more stories of how abortion restrictions have harmed women, with some being punished with criminal charges, the issue is unlikely to go away soon, nor will national Republicans be likely to convince voters they would not attempt to pass similar policies at the national level.
Going into 2024, it seems likely that the durability of the importance of the issue in the public consciousness and Republicans’ ability to find a credible compromise position could very well determine the outcome of the Presidential election.