On Tuesday there were off-year elections held in a couple of states. Kentucky and Mississippi re-elected their governors, Virginia gave the Democratic Party control of its state legislature, and there were hundreds of local elections as well. There are good reasons to believe that these elections are an early picture of the 2024 electorate. There are just as many reasons to believe that these results do not foreshadow anything. To me though the most interesting results from the night were from Ohio.
In Ohio, 56% of the electorate enshrined protections guaranteeing a right to an abortion in the state Constitution. A quick reminder, the recent Dobbs decision did not make abortion illegal in the United States. Instead the case overturned Roe which allowed states to make their own decisions on the legality of abortion. In many Republican-dominated states (including Oklahoma) abortion was completely banned. In other states where Republicans held smaller majorities, they began introducing legislation to make it illegal but they faced more roadblocks. In a handful of states we have seen these state amendments to guarantee abortion, but Ohio is the most recent state to pass one.
Back when Dobbs was decided, I wrote that the majority of Americans held nuanced views on abortion. That is as true today as it was then. Prior to Dobbs, a Gallup poll found that 85% of respondents supported the right to an abortion in “some” cases. A Pew poll taken after Dobbs found that 61% of respondents supported abortion in “most” cases. The difference (about a quarter of the American public) between “some” and “most” are the three big exceptions to abortion law; rape, incest, and health of the mother.
What new data is showing us is that in the world of Roe it was easier to identify yourself as “pro-life” and still support a woman’s right to get an abortion in those narrow circumstances. Today, where abortion is completely illegal in much of the country, that identity is harder to hold onto. Before Dobbs, 47% of the country identified itself as pro-life, today it is 39%.
Ohio may indicate a leftward swing of Americans on abortion, but I doubt it. To me it seems that Americans are still right where they always were, right in the middle. The difference is that the political context we are responding to has changed. In the 2010s the public elected officials who wrote policies that restricted access to abortion. Today the public is voting to protect the right to receive an abortion. James Stimson described this process as the ‘Tides of Consent.’ Elected officials and policies move toward political extremes and the American public pulls it back to the moderate position, just like the tide pulling back after crashing onto the beach.
Stimson’s argument helps to explain the backlash that always follows after “wave” elections. Here is an example. In 2016 the American public elected President Trump and a majority of Republicans in both chambers of Congress. The Republicans then did what either party would do in that scenario and governed according to their preferences which were to the right. According to Stimson, 2016 was just a reaction to the public’s dissatisfaction with the left-leaning Obama Administration. The public was upset at Obama so they voted for the alternative. But when Republicans did not govern as moderates either, they gave Democrats the House in 2018 and President Biden in 2020. The political wave is always followed by the inevitable pull back from the voting public.
The biggest effect that these constitutional protections for abortion could have in 2024 is in motivating turnout. This is particularly worrisome in reddish-purple states like Florida. Florida is a state that Republicans should win, particularly if they nominate either Gov. DeSantis or former President Trump.
There is currently an attempt to get a state constitutional amendment protection abortion on the 2024 Presidential Election ballot. Similar efforts are underway in other swing states like Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada. If successful, that would presumably motivate voters who were interested in protecting abortion to show up and vote on Election Day, and a lot of those voters could end up casting votes for Biden while they are there.
Only time will tell what effect that Dobbs will have on American politics over the long haul. There is strong evidence that it helped the Democratic Party avoid a Red Wave in 2022 and it certainly won in Ohio last week. But it looks to me like the majority of the American public is quite clear. It wants a moderate compromise position and it will punish whichever side it sees standing in the way of that moderate position.
David Searcy holds a master’s degree from Oklahoma State University and a PhD in political science from Southern Illinois University.