The problem with figuring out the electoral effects of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is that it’s totally and thoroughly unprecedented. Or is it?
Normally, the immediate effect of a Supreme Court decision — even an extremely important one — is negligible at best. The people who pay attention to such things are already overwhelmingly likely to vote, so it doesn’t affect turnout. Those people also tend to be very strong partisans, which means that any given decision only makes them more likely to do what they were already going to do anyway. On top of that, since the court wraps up its term by early July at the latest, months will pass between its decisions and November elections, leaving plenty of time for even intense emotions to fade and new election issues to emerge.
That could very well be the case for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the ruling that overturned Roe. By November, the people who are still fired up about it will be those who would have voted anyway, and for the same candidates. For everyone else, inflation and the economy and who knows what else will be the big issues.
But this time could — perhaps — be different. Normally, the in-party tends toward complacency while the out-party tends to be bitter about being out of power and motivated to organize and vote. Normally, government policy moves in the direction of the president, causing a “thermostatic” reaction in the opposite direction, so that voters become more liberal during Republican presidencies and more conservative when there’s a Democrat in office. But this time, the biggest and most visible policy shift may be in the opposite direction, with mostly unpredictable consequences. Political scientist Matt Grossmann puts it this way: “Part of midterm loss is ideological balancing so there is some chance overturning Roe decreases perceptions that policy is moving too far left & the perceived need for correction via a Republican congress or a message to the president.”
It’s also true that overall the Democrats’ position on abortion is more popular than what Republicans want. So on the margins, and all else equal, we could probably expect that the more the topic is in the news, the better Democrats would do. But again, it’s not at all clear that this story will be in the headlines this fall; as important as it is to many on both sides of the issue, importance doesn’t always (or even usually) drive headlines. And normally, we just don’t see a lot of issue voting. Could this time be different? Yes. Will it be? Dunno.
All that is more or less about voters. But there’s also a story here about party actors. Multiple stories, really. Republicans might be especially energized by winning at the Supreme Court and now having to, as they see it, finish the job in state legislatures and eventually in Congress. It’s also possible that they’ll feel less urgency, now that they’ve won the big prize they’ve aspired to for years, and one which was the primary motivator for countless Republican voters over the years. On the Democratic side, we should expect a new outpouring of energy, with many who thought that Roe wasn’t really at risk now becoming activated by its demise. On the other hand, many opponents of Dobbs are blaming President Joe Biden and the Democratic majorities in Congress for not being prepared for the decision. That’s not reasonable; a tied Senate with only 49 Democrats who support abortion rights wasn’t going to do much, no matter how clever or dedicated party leaders had been. But it’s not surprising that some people feel that way, and if they act on it Republicans, not Democrats, will benefit this fall.
All of those reactions, among voters and party actors, are plausible. None is certain. What ends up happening will depend on political choices by thousands, and then millions, of people, and without comparable situations to go by, anyone who makes strong predictions is really just guessing.
What I have a lot more confidence about is the medium-range and long-term effects of this decision within the Democratic Party. I expect abortion rights, and privacy rights more generally, to become more important within the Democratic agenda. Not just that: I expect the courts overall to become a much higher priority for the party in the future than has been the case. We’re going to see more emphasis on choosing and confirming reliably liberal judges, and on defeating Republican nominees. We’re going to see more talk about reforming the Supreme Court in various ways. Supporting abortion rights was already a litmus test for Democrats running for most offices, and that will be even more the case now. Judicial reform wasn’t a significant issue at all in 2008, and was still second-tier in 2020; that’s not going to be the case the next time Democrats have an open presidential nomination to fight out.
But as far as the effects on the 2022 midterms, or the 2024 general election? We just don’t know.