The anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade has yielded many reflections on what this change to reproductive rights has meant for women across the United States. But one year after this monumental decision, we should also be looking forward to consider not only the significant impact of Dobbs on women’s lives but also how it might motivate their political engagement in the 2024 elections.
Already, women in the U.S. outnumber and outvote men. And while there is important variation across race/ethnicity, age, and education, women voters remain more likely than men across groups to back Democratic candidates. Women—and especially Democratic women—are also the most opposed to the overturning of Roe v. Wade and most supportive of legalizing abortion under any circumstances, suggesting that they might be among the voters most politically motivated by the Dobbs decision. Some evidence from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), supports this claim, with women more likely than men to report that the Dobbs decision had a major impact on their decision about whether to vote as well as which candidates they supported in the 2022 general election. The influence of Dobbs was even greater among Democratic voters. And while women are the majority of Democratic voters, it is important not to conflate gender and partisan effects.
That is why data looking more specifically at gender differences among voters of the same party is so important. The latest NPR/Marist poll shows 74% of Democratic women and 72% of Democratic men—in contrast to 35% of Republican women and 19% of Republican men —oppose the overturning of Roe v. Wade, reminding us that partisan differences are much larger than gender differences on this issue. But Democratic women are significantly more likely than Democratic men to report that their state’s abortion laws are too restrictive in a recent survey from All in Together.
That survey also gets to the heart of why Democratic women voters may be the most motivated by Dobbs in the next election. They find that 44% of Democratic women, versus 30% of Democratic men, report anger as their most common feeling toward the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Research shows how anger can motivate political interest and engagement, though there are important differences in emotional effects by race. And the KFF survey finds that voters’ anger at Roe being overturned was more likely to fuel the decision’s impact on their 2022 participation and vote than being a woman or a Democrat. Anger may also be cued by perceptions of threat, a motivation that research has found can be equally or more powerful in mobilizing political participation. For example, studies conducted during and after the 2016 election show how anger and threat motivated both Latino voters and women candidates.
Perceptions of threat might also help to explain the jump in voter registration among women in the months leading up to Kansas’ 2022 primary election, when state legislators put an amendment to remove state constitutional protections for abortion rights on the ballot. Voter registration surged, with women accounting for about 70% of new registrants according to Target Smart, and voter turnout in August far surpassed any recent primary election. The result was an overwhelming rejection of the proposed amendment championed by conservatives in a state that had only two years earlier voted for Donald Trump by a 15-point margin.
In November 2022, five more states put abortion on the ballot. As 19th News reported, ballot measures that expanded abortion access and reproductive rights outperformed the Democratic candidates in those states, and ballot measures to remove or constrain abortion rights performed worse than the Republican candidates on the same ballots. In Michigan, where voters approved an amendment to enshrine reproductive rights in the state constitution, Democrats also won a trifecta of power in both legislative chambers and the governor’s office. Abortion was central to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s reelection campaign that year, a strategy that some questioned but which proved effective. Whitmer is among those who think the Democratic Party should adopt a similar strategy in 2024, leveraging the threats to reproductive rights as a force for voter mobilization and engagement.
There are a few ways that Democrats might try to both extend and amplify the “Dobbs effect” in election 2024. First, prominent political messengers—politicians, partisans, and advocates—play important roles in highlighting the threats to reproductive rights as ongoing and impactful. While Dobbs increased awareness of the status of reproductive rights nationwide, a May 2023 KFF survey found that one-quarter of women ages 18-29 are “not sure” about the status of Roe v. Wade. That lack of clarity is greater among Black and Hispanic women voters, who are among those most impacted by the decision and key voters to Democratic candidates. Organizations like KFF track state abortion policies, litigation, and legislation affecting reproductive rights. Moreover, media outlets and advocacy organizations are amassing the personal stories of how these policies are having direct and negative human impact, especially on women. Ensuring that this information continues to reach voters will be essential in efforts to maintain the emotional response that motivates political engagement.
Next, Democratic candidates might follow Whitmer’s lead to make reproductive rights—and specifically fighting back against threats to those rights—central to their 2024 campaigns. This week, President Biden centered reproductive rights in messaging, but it remains to be seen if this issue will remain among the top priorities of his reelection campaign. Like in 2022, candidates will weigh the benefits of mobilizing the most reliable Democratic voters—women among them—with the need to pick up independent and swing voters who may be less enraged and activated by the abortion issue. That said, 2022 election results and recent polling show that the Republican attacks on reproductive rights may have gone too far for some voters in these groups as well.
Finally, elections in 2022 and 2023 showed that when reproductive rights were on the ballot—directly in the form of ballot questions or indirectly in the form of the officeholder elections that would near-immediately determine policy outcomes—Democratic voters were even more engaged. Already, measures to codify reproductive rights in state constitutions are on 2024 general election ballots in Maryland and New York. In addition to their direct policy effects, these ballot measures may prove strategically beneficial by motivating voter turnout in an important election year.
There is a lot of time between today’s anniversary and the first ballots being cast in the 2024 election. But the continued efforts to both restrict and protect reproductive rights across the U.S.—as well as the very real impact felt by individuals subjected to new restrictions—have kept attention and emotions high for voters, especially women. Over the next fourteen months, we will see just how deeply the Dobbs effect has altered the political environment and will shape who holds power in 2025.
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