by Michael Torres
In the final weeks of the 2022 midterm campaign, Pennsylvania Democratic candidates continue to bet big on abortion. It was the dominant theme of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman’s first rally in Philadelphia. And the party’s candidates in swing U.S. House districts, like the 1st in suburban Philadelphia and the 17th in suburban Pittsburgh, are hoping that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will entice voters to go blue.
But history and the latest polling give cause to be skeptical of Democrats’ strategy.
In 2011, then U.S. Rep. Mike Pence sponsored a bill to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood. These “treacherous times for women’s reproductive rights,” as the New York Times Editorial Board put it then, fed marketing campaigns the next year against moderate Republicans like U.S. Reps. Pat Meehan and Mike Fitzpatrick in Philadelphia’s suburban counties, and abortion would prove central in the 2012 presidential election.
Barack Obama went on to defeat Mitt Romney in 2012, thanks to strong support from women voters. And in Pennsylvania, he won nearly all the Philadelphia suburban counties. But Meehan and Fitzpatrick won their races in those same areas despite the pro-abortion campaigns against them. These results underscore the unpredictable nature of abortion as an electoral issue in purple states like Pennsylvania, especially at the local level.
“Women are the reason we can win,” Fetterman said at a Sept. 11 pro-abortion rally. “Don’t piss women off.”
In the months following the Dobbs decision, this view seemed sound, as national polling showed abortion among voters’ top concerns. Notably, more women than men registered to vote in Pennsylvania through August, according to Democratic voter data firm Target Smart. And 62% of those newly registered women are Democrats; just 15% are Republicans.
But not everyone is convinced that an abortion-focused strategy will pay off.
“I am worried if we Democrats are focused on just the choice issue, then that’s not enough,” Rebecca McNichol, Pennsylvania executive director of progressive candidate training firm Emerge, said in an interview. She said that Pennsylvania Democratic candidates must also campaign on “the bread-and-butter issues that are noticeable for families,” noting that gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro is setting an example.
Several recent polls underscore McNichol’s concern. While a majority of Pennsylvania’s likely voters say that abortion should be legal to some extent in a recent Muhlenberg College poll, for instance, 34% see the economy and inflation as a top issue, compared to 20% for abortion. Emerson College’s recent poll shows that 45% of likely Pennsylvania voters believe the economy is most important, and only 14% say that of abortion. Marist’s latest poll shows abortion is “top of mind” for 16% of voters, while 40% put inflation first and 29% said preserving democracy.
Emerson, Marist, and Fox News’s latest Pennsylvania poll also show a mere 10%, 11%, and 11%, of independent likely voters prioritizing abortion, respectively, which is nearly identical to Republicans.
Despite these findings, many believe that the Dobbs decision will also be a catalyst for young voters. But these polls call that theory into question, too.
The Marist poll did show that 23% of voters in the GenZ/Millennial generations list abortion as their top-of-mind issue, compared to 19% for GenX, 9% for Baby Boomers, and 10% for Silent/Greatest generation. But only 72% of the youngest generational block said that they’re definitely planning to vote. That’s compared to 92% of baby boomers, the group least likely to prioritize abortion in the poll.
Fox similarly found that 26% of Pennsylvanians under 35 say abortion is the most important issue, compared to a meager 12% for those over 45. Meanwhile, 86% of those over 45 say they’re certain to vote, compared to 57% of those under 35.
This dearth of motivation induced by abortion in Pennsylvania is mirrored nationally. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll, for example, noted that “there’s no sign it’s [abortion] impacting propensity to vote.” A FiveThirtyEight survey found that abortion has declined as a top issue for voters from July to September, with the share of women ages 18-44 who prioritize it dropping from 29% to 12%.
In an interview, Jeff Roe, founder and CEO of the Republican consulting firm Axiom Strategies, described a voter focus group that his firm conducted during the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial campaign. He said: “I’ll never forget Evelyne in Richmond, a pro-choice African American voter, who said ‘well, I have to send my kid to school every day, I have to get groceries every day, I have to get gas every day, but I don’t have to get an abortion every day.’”
That disconnect – between Americans’ daily economic concerns and more ideological arguments over access to abortion – could prove key next month. Democratic candidates like Fetterman could find that abortion is as unreliable an election issue as ever, despite this summer’s fervor.
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Michael Torres is deputy editor of RealClearPennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter at @MindofTorres.