History may serve as a guide.
Today’s environment, though different in many ways, is reminiscent of the period from 1989 to 1992. In 1989, the Supreme Court decided Webster v. Reproductive Health Services
, which affirmed restrictions on the use of state funds, facilities and employees in performing, assisting with or counseling on abortions and ultimately refused to invalidate the Missouri law’s preamble that stated that life begins at conception. In the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey
decision, “undue burden” was established as a new permissive standard on restrictions, and the constitutional right to abortion was affirmed.
As these cases worked their way through the courts, the country was facing a recession
fueled by a spike in oil prices
during the First Gulf War. Unsurprisingly, Bill Clinton’s campaign mantra became, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
And while the economy certainly played a key role, abortion also inspired voters. In 1989, in off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia
and New Jersey
, outspoken proponents of Roe won. A year later, three pro-choice challengers were elected in California
and, notably, Texas, where Ann Richards
From 1989 to 1993, the number of women
in the US House of Representatives grew from 29 to 48. In 1990, Barbara Mikulski and Nancy Kassebaum were the only women in the US Senate. In 1992, there were a record-setting four new female senators — Barbara Boxer, Carole Moseley Braun, Dianne Feinstein and Patty Murray. All six women were pro-reproductive choice.
Post-election academic studies help tell the tale. Research
conducted by professors at American University, Illinois Benedictine University and Georgetown University using data from 1989 and 1990 exit polls in multiple states found views on “(a)bortion was a significant predictor of vote choice.” They write, “In the aftermath of Webster, voters considered the positions of gubernatorial candidates on abortion and were willing to cross party lines to support the candidates who supported their positions.”
In his introduction to a study
based on the 1992 American National Election Study, Emory University Professor Alan Abramowitz states, “Despite the general belief that the presidential election was decided almost exclusively on economic issues, attitudes toward abortion had a significant influence on candidate choice in the overall electorate. Although the issue divided supporters of both parties, far more ‘pro-choice’ Republicans than ‘pro-life’ Democrats defected from their party’s presidential candidate.”
Back in 1989, once anti-choice New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jim Florio approached me at an event to say that his fiancé, a teacher, had told him if he did not publicly support a minor’s access to abortion, there would be no wedding. I heard many such stories, most involving wives or children of elected officials who changed their positions. Polling can’t capture the effect of these heightened personal conversations about abortion.
Polling does do a good job of ranking issues and motivation. Early 2022 CNN polling
shows abortion is not the top issue on voters’ minds, nor is it cited as a strong motivating force. However, it is one thing to rank issues and motivation. It’s another to be the “thing” that determines a vote.
Simply put, what impact does the feeling that a candidate “doesn’t understand me” have? It’s the kind of question that is often asked about politicians and the media — and could be very revealing in this circumstance.
Most voters in 1992 could remember life before Roe, when conversations about abortion were largely limited to whispers behind closed doors. Today, voters of reproductive age were born into a world of Roe, and, according to a CNN poll
, 60% of all Americans say they know someone who has had an abortion. They know a friend, a sister, a mother. As a result, their connection to the issue goes beyond the legal arguments into the realm of the personal.
By the same token, it is not a surprise that 67% of voters
under 45 say they would be angry if Roe were overturned. The fact that Republican and Republican-leaning independents younger than 45 are split 50-50 on whether they’d like to see Roe overturned creates real potential for crossover voting. In close races, these voters, who cannot imagine a Roe-free world, may find their distrust of candidates influence voting decisions.
Returning to 1992, without the aid of the internet or social media, half a million
people marched on Washington in support of abortion rights. This year, since the draft leak, there have been demonstrations across the nation, including in red, purple and blue states.
The good news is the spontaneity of these demonstrations. The challenge for Democrats is to capture the current emotion and turn it into organizing against candidates who favor overturning Roe.
This is not as difficult a challenge as it might seem. The simple task of asking every candidate for public office if they support the overturning of Roe would be a good place to start. Answers in print, on audio and/or video can be shared locally and used by ad makers to plant seeds of distrust and discomfort among women and younger voters who will hold the key to the 2022 midterms and beyond.