When the right to abortion is on the ballot, it wins. It wins in red states that voted for President Donald Trump. It wins in counties President Joe Biden lost by more than 20 points. It wins when popular Republican officials campaign for it and when they ignore it. And it wins even when the outcome has no immediate effect on abortion access.
Support for abortion cuts across party lines, performing significantly better at the ballot box than Biden and other Democrats. In fact, abortion outruns Biden most in the most Republican areas, according to a POLITICO analysis of election results from the five states that have had direct votes on abortion rights. In those five states — California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio — every county that voted for Biden also voted for abortion rights.
In the counties where Biden received less than 20 percent of the vote in 2020, the abortion-rights side has averaged 31 percent in referendums — an 11-point gap.
The pattern of cross-partisan support for abortion is so strong, the analysis found, that it suggests only a small handful of states, such as Wyoming or Alabama, might be uniformly conservative enough to vote against abortion if given the opportunity.
The data reflects Americans’ life experience: Nearly 1 in 4 women will have an abortion, and nearly 60 percent of abortions are among women who already have children.
“Abortions being ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ legal won in Texas. It won in every state in which we polled the question,” said Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute. “That’s where America is.”
This week, in addition to Ohio approving a ballot measure enshrining abortion protections in the state Constitution and effectively repealing a six-week ban, Virginia rejected Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s calls for a 15-week ban and handed Democrats control of the Legislature. Kentucky also reelected pro-abortion rights Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, and Pennsylvania sent an abortion-rights supporter to the state Supreme Court.
Those victories Tuesday night, which built on abortion-rights triumphs in several states last year, are expected to fuel ballot initiatives in several more states in 2024 and ensure abortion is a leading argument in Democratic campaigns for the White House and Congress.
For conservative officials and opponents of abortion rights, Tuesday was another brutal night that ended with finger-pointing and disagreements on how to move forward. Some demanded Republicans campaign harder on restricting abortion while others urged them to avoid the topic.
“I don’t think it’s a big secret that in many states, abortion is not a winning issue for Republicans,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told reporters Wednesday, adding that the GOP should try to steer the conversation to other areas, including the economy. “Let’s focus on making people’s lives better by bringing the cost of living in line with their incomes.”
Multiple abortion opponents also called Wednesday for more efforts to ban or restrict the ability to vote directly on abortion-rights ballot initiatives after Tuesday’s sweeping losses.
American United for Life was the most explicit, calling Wednesday for the remaining red states that have a citizen-led ballot initiative process — Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota — to get rid of them and only allow ballot initiatives approved by their state legislatures.
“The results in Ohio are a reminder of the moral danger of majoritarianism, of allowing the strong to victimize the weak,” the group said.
While Democrats who ran on protecting abortion rights capitalized on voter outrage across the country, the power of the issue was most evident in Ohio.
The Republicans who control the Buckeye State used all their levers of power to defeat the ballot measure. It still passed with about 57 percent approval — a nearly identical margin of victory as last year’s vote in its bluer neighbor, Michigan, where the amendment had the backing of the state’s Democratic governor and attorney general.
“Ohioans sent a message to the nation last night: Americans support abortion rights and will turn out to vote to protect these rights,” Veronica Ingham, the campaign manager of Ohioans For Reproductive Freedom, told reporters Wednesday morning. “Voters last night made it clear that this is not a partisan issue.”
Abortion-rights groups in Ohio won over Republicans, independents and Democrats by sticking with the playbook that carried them to victory in six state contests in 2022, including decrying government interference in personal health care decisions. Anti-abortion groups also recycled many of their talking points from other state fights about abortions later in pregnancy, gender-affirming care and parental consent for minors terminating a pregnancy. And their attempts to go after pieces of Democrats’ coalition — including Black voters and students — were not successful.
Exit polling showed strong support for the referendum across all age groups, except older adults, and across all races, as well as high approval among suburban voters, people who identify as moderate and parents — results that suggest Democrats who run on the issue will continue to reap rewards in 2024.
The crushing defeat for the anti-abortion movement calls into question its post-2022 argument that Republicans can win by going on offense on abortion and past losses were caused by GOP candidates avoiding the issue and ceding ground to Democrats.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s pretty obvious. I think we need to go back to the drawing board and back to the basics,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. “We need to respect the electorate’s voice, but we also need to lead them and guide them and help them understand.”
Anti-abortion groups analyzing the results Wednesday blamed their donors for allowing them to be dramatically outspent across several states, which they said “allowed Democrats to dominate the abortion narrative.” In Ohio, for example, the pro-abortion rights side brought in triple the donations as their anti-abortion counterparts.
“The GOP consultant class needs to wake up,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA Pro-Life America, which helped lead the Ohio campaign, said in a statement. “Candidates must put money and messaging toward countering the Democrats’ attacks or they will lose every time.”
In October, Youngkin’s PAC launched a $1.4 million statewide ad buy pitching the proposed restrictions as “reasonable” and “commonsense,” using the word “limit” instead of “ban.” It served as a test case for anti-abortion groups’ theory that the remedy to their string of electoral losses in 2022 was to talk more about abortion, not less.
But Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, an anti-abortion group, said Youngkin focused too much on the number of weeks after which the procedure would be restricted.
“Talking about 15 weeks was incorrect,” she said. “It became about the weeks, not about the ability of the unborn child to feel pain.”
Abortion-rights groups counter that it’s the message that’s the issue, not the messaging.
“It’s about the fact that Republicans are not shifting their policy,” said Mini Timmaraju, president and CEO of Reproductive Freedom for All. “The American people know the Republicans are responsible for overturning Roe. They’ve wrapped themselves around it, they’ve championed it, they ran on it for decades, they can’t disentangle themselves from it now, and it’s not going to be fixed by a simple messaging change on their part.”
Conservative candidates who adopted the opposite strategy — treating abortion as a non-issue — lost as well. Republicans in New Jersey, where abortion is legal throughout pregnancy, essentially threw up their hands on the possibility of new restrictions as they sought to take control of at least one legislative chamber for the first time in two decades. John DiMaio, the Republican minority leader in the state Assembly, admitted in an op-ed last month that a “healthy mix of pro-choice and pro-life legislators” among New Jersey Republicans makes banning abortion “impossible.”
Still, Republicans suffered defeats in that state’s legislative races. Democrats, who used abortion as a wedge in competitive legislative districts, not only kept control of both houses of the legislature but expanded their majorities.
Democrats are working to ensure abortion remains top of mind in both federal and state races going into 2024 — well aware that support for access doesn’t always translate into wins for candidates. For example, while abortion played a key role in helping Gov. Beshear notch a reelection victory in Kentucky, the state’s Democratic candidate for attorney general, state Rep. Pamela Stevenson, lost despite campaigning on the issue. Democratic challenger Greta Kemp Martin also failed Tuesday to unseat Mississippi’s GOP Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who led the case that overturned Roe v. Wade.
Still, Democrats insist that voters will remember which candidates campaigned for abortion rights and which campaigned against them when they decide in 2024 which party should control Congress and statehouses around the country.
“Dobbs has really crystallized the stakes and the role state legislatures play in determining policies that affect our lives in very real ways,” said Jessica Post, the outgoing president of Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. “And so I think that those really clear stakes and the fact that Republicans continue to ignore voters and on the issue of abortion means that they are setting themselves up for failure.”
Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.