Aug 25, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democrats' stunning turnaround

Illustration of a donkey riding a red cross on a red wave.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Passion about abortion rights has fueled a stunning turnaround in Democrats’ midterm fortunes.

Why it matters: The inflation slowdown and lower gas prices also are big factors. But officials in both parties tell us abortion has animated Democratic engagement like no other issue since President Trump left office.

  • The result: A reset for a party that was defensive and disillusioned before the Supreme Court ruling in June that overturned Roe v. Wade.
  • 75 days from election day, Democrats now have a good chance of keeping the Senate.
  • And keeping the GOP to a narrow win in the House is now a realistic possibility.

What’s happening: Abortion has helped drive primary-season triumphs for Democrats both in fundraising and in turnout approaching, and in some cases exceeding, historic 2018 levels.

  • Now, officials in both parties see signs that it could blunt a red wave of GOP midterm gains that once looked inevitable.

Driving the news: Tuesday night's primaries in New York and Florida offer the latest evidence.

  • Democrat Pat Ryan's unexpected victory in a House special election (NY-19) was driven by a message centered on abortion. “Choice was on the ballot. Freedom was on the ballot, and tonight choice and freedom won," Ryan declared in a post-election victory statement.
  • Ryan's ads focused on protecting abortion rights, while his GOP opponent Marc Molinaro hammered Democrats over the economy and crime. Ryan won by two points in a district Biden carried by the same margin.
  • In Florida's gubernatorial primary, more Democrats showed up to vote (1,513,180) than in 2018 (1,509,960). Given that 2018 was a historically favorable year for Democrats and 2022 recently looked like a Democratic wipeout, the similar level of Democratic engagement is surprising.

The big picture: An Axios analysis found that Democratic primary turnout for governors' races increased between 2018 and 2022 in five of the eight states holding contested primaries after June, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision.

But, but, but... Republicans have also been turning out at historically high levels throughout the primary calendar.

  • In battleground states like Arizona and Florida, where Democratic primary turnout increased from 2018, Republican turnout in those states was even higher — driven by issues including the economy, immigration and competitive primaries where former President Trump was involved.
  • Democrats may not be able to control that, but if they can give their own base a reason to turn out, they can at least remain competitive.

Recent polling confirms the growing significance of abortion rights in the midterm dynamic.

  • A Pew Research Center poll conducted Aug. 1-14 found 56% of voters said the issue of abortion would be "very important" in their midterm decision. That's up 13 percentage points from Pew's March survey. The increased interest in abortion was entirely driven by Democratic voters.
  • A new NBC News poll found Democrats closing in on Republican enthusiasm for voting in the midterms, driven by partisans citing abortion as a top issue. Only 38% said they supported the Dobbs decision, while 58% opposed it.
  • Abortion rated as a top issue in last week's Fox News polls in Arizona and Wisconsin, moving closer to economic concerns.
  • In Arizona, 20% of respondents said inflation was the most important issue in the Senate race, with 16% naming abortion rights. In Wisconsin, 28% named economic concerns as the top issue while abortion came in second at 17%.

The bottom line: The economy is still the dominant issue for voters. But lower gas prices in recent week are helping improve the mood for persuadable voters — and signaling to base voters that they can afford to let themselves be mobilized by issues like reproductive rights rather than pure pocketbook needs.

  • "Gas prices coming down is such a powerful mood enhancement," said one Democratic strategist after witnessing a focus group in a Midwestern battleground race. "People complained about prices and general economic stuff, but there was some optimism that things were improving."
  • "That allows people to focus on the social issue dynamics and divisiveness they don't like."
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