Joe’s Roe Problems

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty
Peter Hamby
May 15, 2022

Democrats, stunned and dismayed by the news that the Supreme Court is preparing to gut Roe v. Wade, are now hoping for a silver lining: that grassroots rage on the left, especially among women, will energize their base ahead of a midterm election that’s been tilting in the direction of a Republican landslide. Democrats, the thinking goes, might now have a culture war wedge issue of their own, allowing them to change the subject from a constipated economy and blast voters with the message that “ultra MAGA” Republicans are radical extremists hellbent on rolling back fundamental rights for all Americans. But the polls that have been released since Samuel Alito’s opinion leaked into public view suggest only modest gains in Democratic enthusiasm.

The headline numbers appear encouraging for Democrats, on the surface. A Morning Consult poll last week found that the share of Democrats who said they were “extremely” or “very” enthusiastic about voting increased by 6 points since the Roe news leaked, a jump driven mostly by women. And a Monmouth poll out Thursday found that while the economy and cost of living continues to be top of mind for midterm voters, abortion had soared to the second most pressing issue. About a third of Democrats, and a quarter of independents, said that agreeing with a candidate on abortion policy is the top consideration in their vote. Four years ago, during a Democratic wave election, fewer than 10 percent of those voters said the same. 

At the same time, this is what Democrats and precious independent voters are telling pollsters right now, as the abortion wars dominate media coverage. And even with that story all over the news, it still hasn’t penetrated the national consciousness of Americans, the majority of whom say they are more concerned about the cost of living. The aforementioned Morning Consult poll revealed that only about a third of registered voters had seen, read or heard “a lot” about the likely SCOTUS ruling. Millions of Americans, of all parties and persuasions, tuned out political news and silenced their notifications the moment Donald Trump left office, which has presented a communication challenge of its own for Joe Biden

Indeed, one of President Biden’s biggest and most unexpected challenges this election year is his cratering support among the millions of young people who voted for him in 2020. I wrote last December about the reasons why (and there are many). I’m told that in recent months, Biden has become preoccupied with his weak standing among Millennials and Gen Z, holding lengthy strategy sessions on the matter with his communications and digital teams, his chief of staff Ron Klain, and Harvard University’s youth pollster John Della Volpe, who worked for Biden in 2020. With independent voters already lost, the difference between losing 20 seats in Congress or 50 seats in November will depend on whether core Democratic groups bother to cast ballots. The White House knows that if young people don’t show up to vote in November, their party is cooked for the rest of Biden’s term.

So: Will abortion help rally those younger troops? Voters under the age of 30 can’t remember a time when abortion wasn’t safe and legal in this country. But fresh data suggests that a disruption of the status quo could maybe bring disaffected young Democrats back into the fold. According to a new survey from the youth polling outfit The Generation Lab, provided exclusively to Puck, 65 percent of all voters under 30 want Roe to remain the law of the land. That includes a whopping 82 percent of Democrats between the ages of 18 and 29 who oppose overturning Roe. As do 66 percent of independents. That means Roe has markedly higher support among Democrats—and young independents—when compared to older generations. Meanwhile, about 35 percent of young Republicans said Roe should be maintained—about in line with older Republicans, at least according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll from last week.

Another eye-popping data point: Just over 85 percent of young Democrats said abortion is a “somewhat” or “very important issue” for them, with 59 percent calling it “very important.” Among independents, 41 percent of young people said abortion is “very important” and 31 percent said “somewhat.” But Generation Lab found that Republicans are passionate about the issue, too: Almost 70 percent of them called abortion a “somewhat” or “very important” issue. The poll was taken between May 5-8, and sampled 813 young Americans, 460 of whom were women.

The big question mark here, as it is with voters of all ages, is whether ending Roe will make young Democrats wake up to the stakes and return their ballots this fall, or compel casual and low-information voters to pay attention to an election that’s barely background noise right now. About half of younger Democrats—49.9 percent—said ending Roe would make them more likely to vote. That’s positive news for Dems. Not so great, though? About 46 percent of young Democrats said abortion will make no difference in whether they will vote. Independent voters were significantly less likely to say the Roe news would impact their vote. Only 28 percent said they would be more likely to vote if Roe is killed, and 65 percent of younger independents said it would make no difference at all. About a third of young Republicans said ending Roe would make them more likely to vote, and 68 percent said it would have no impact on their decision.

The bottom line is this: Young Democrats (and plenty of independents) are saying loud and clear that they don’t take abortion rights for granted. In overwhelming numbers, they oppose ending Roe v. Wade. But the Generation Lab polling also reaffirms what’s always been confounding about the youth vote—and anxiety-inducing for the White House. They’re loud, they have opinions, and in the case of Gen Z in particular, they’re earnest and unafraid to engage with the world in hopes of building a future that works for them. But while they have firmly held opinions on abortion and aren’t afraid to express them, there are still doubts about whether they’ll actually express their beliefs in the form of a vote come November. 

The end of federal abortion protections—and a coordinated effort to portray Republicans as extremist culture warriors—might help Democrats to break through with a choice-not-a-referendum message. Democratic energy could continue to grow, especially as Republicans begin to pick nominees in primaries who favor drastic abortion restrictions at the state level. And if the Court indeed guts Roe come this summer, Democratic intensity may shoot back up when the news breaks, just as campaigns seriously begin to introduce themselves, raise money and register voters. 

Still, attention spans in 2022 are what they are. It’s not clear if the current swirl of protest and organizing happening will influence tomorrow’s vote or rival the economy as the nation’s top concern. Historically, according to plenty of political science papers, the political trendline for midterms is baked in around February of the election year. The party controlling the White House is always on defense, and this year is no different. Republicans have held a narrow but steady lead since the beginning of the year in generic ballot tests. They’re also expressing more enthusiasm about voting. Which means that Democrats are all but certain to lose seats in the House and Senate, and possibly control of several statehouses in the process. 

And while G.O.P. intensity on the abortion issue hasn’t changed much since last week’s Roe news—about 17 percent say it’s their most important issue this year—it’s still high, and has been for a very long time. As I wrote last week, Republicans have diligently kept single-issue abortion voters in their coalition for decades. Those voters show up in off years and presidential years alike. It’s too early to tell, both for November and beyond, if Democratic voters possess the same kind of commitment on the abortion issue alone—especially in a year when Democrats are already battling a sense of complacency and ambient political doom.