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Opinion: Abortion politics are not necessarily a silver bullet for Democrats in 2022

By BRADLEY HONAN and ELISABETH ZECHE | October 7, 2022 | Original Article

President Joe Biden’s visit to the Hudson Valley and New York City this week is a reminder that the White House and Democratic messaging apparatus needs to pivot away from abortion politics to instead speak to the leading issue facing New Yorkers today, namely jobs and the economy.

Biden’s visit to IBM to talk about jobs creation is a reminder that even in New York, abortion rights are not the silver bullet that Democrats need to win in November 2022. Biden also was to attend a private fundraiser in Manhattan where he was expected to give a full-throated pitch that Democrats must be elected in key races across the state in order to protect a woman’s right to choose. Biden is right on the policy of reproductive freedom, but wrong on the politics of placing so much emphasis on this as the winning issue.

Over the last several months, we have been watching Democrats blindly deceiving themselves that the debate over abortion rights will be their electoral salvation in the November 2022 mid-term elections. Indeed, based upon our 20 years of studying public opinion and working on political races up and down the ballot, what we see today in the polls is far more imagined than real.

And what confounds us further is that in our experience, Republicans are typically the ones who get in line, and corralling Democrats into agreement about almost anything is like herding cats.  Will Rogers’ famous quote that he “belong(ed) to no organized party,” while he was a Democrat, rings as true today as it did in his era, at the turn of the last century.

The conventional Democratic thinking goes as follows: The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade with the Dobbs decision has put enormous wind into the sails of Democrats and a surprising number of well informed and veteran Democrats are even contemplating that the party might hold the House as a result. Just look at Kansas. Just look at Pat Ryan’s special election win. But Ryan may have been an anomaly since he was elected the same day as two high profile Democratic primaries were being held in the district.

And so Democrats are falling into line like never before – and much of this is due to a fundamental misreading of public opinion polling data.  And let us be clear, this isn’t an academic point, millions upon millions of campaign dollars are being funneled into abortion messaging – both nationally and in races right here in New York State. Indeed, a recent New York Times headline reads as follows “In an Uphill Battle to Hold the House, Democrats Bet on Abortion Rights.”

However, a careful read of the recent Siena College poll makes the Democrat disconnect abundantly clear. At first glance the public seems to be overwhelmingly on the side of pro-choice Democrats, but the abortion issue is fading from being top of mind.

In the Siena poll, 67% of New York voters opposed the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, a very similar number to the 68% who felt that way in their August poll. And beyond this, 72% say that abortion should be mostly or always legal, similar to the 74% who felt that way in August. The data is certainly consistent about where public opinion stands.

A simplistic reading of the poll data would suggest that Democrats are right on the money about making the November 2022 midterm elections a referendum about choice. The problem is that each new day, the Dobbs decision is one more day behind us. And that leads us to wonder if anger about the overturning of Roe Vs. Wade may have come too soon in the election cycle to matter in the waning days of the electoral calendar.

But digging deeper into the Siena poll tells a far more nuanced story – abortion is a second tier issue for most voters – Democrats included. Only a distinct minority of the electorate – liberal women are voting on the issue and prioritizing it as their leading issue.

Indeed, when Siena asked what is the first and second most important issue in determining their vote in November, abortion is not even close to being the leading issue – and again this is a poll among New Yorkers. If abortion isn’t the leading issue here, where is it?

As evidenced by the most recent Siena College poll, the issue of abortion is mentioned by just 15% of voters, including just 20% of Democrats, as the leading issue facing the state of New York. Abortion trails mentions of the economy (50%), threats to democracy (34%), crime (29%), and national gun policies (19%).  So much for this issue being the silver bullet – it’s not even close to being the second major issue, let alone the first.

Among the sought after swing voter group of Latinos, just 11% cite abortion as the main issue that will determine their November vote – hardly the mobilizing issue to bring these voters into our franchise.

Biden should instead focus his messaging between now and Election Day on how he intends to keep the economy out of recession, with pro-growth economic policies, and pushing employers to provide onsite child care – an economic issue that is holding tens and tens of millions of American women behind. That’s smarter policy – and smarter electoral politics.

Honan and Zeche are partners in the Democrats polling and data analytics firm, Honan Strategy Group.