After two recent polls sent shockwaves through the Democratic establishment just as voters went to the polls one year before the 2024 presidential election, it was reasonable to assume Republicans would, if not thrive, at least come out of the off-year election of 2023 reassured about their prospects for next November.
Quite the opposite happened.
How, you might ask, could the GOP have failed to capitalize on such a favorable political climate? How could they lose the day with a president so broadly unpopular, about whom there are so many flashing red lights that he has fallen behind the vilified Donald Trump by more than the margin of error in polls by both The New York Times and CNN? The answers to most questions like that are complex. But not this time. Democrats ran and won on a single issue: Abortion.
Election of 2023 — Paying it Forward to 2024?
The right to terminate a pregnancy without restriction was universally trumpeted by the left during the fall campaign, and much like the 2022 midterms that defied historical trends, the issue resonated so strongly that voters in red, blue, and purple states set their profound concern about the current commander-in-chief to the side, at least for the time being. Did Democrats discover — or rediscover — the magic bullet for holding the White House and Congress, or will the impact of this single issue fade next year in the face of two wars, a porous border, raging urban crime, and an economy broadly panned by the public?
Already, Republicans have underestimated and/or miscalculated the resonance of the abortion issue for women who have for half a century been told they not only have a right to abortion but also it is constitutionally protected. While Democrats have been in lockstep and fired up from the moment Roe v. Wade was overturned, Republicans have struggled to present a single coherent position. Some want to ban the procedure at 15 weeks, others at six weeks. Some want a prohibition on abortion included in their state constitution, others do not. The result is a public confused and distrustful of Republicans on the issue. Conservatives knew for some time before the Dobbs decision that Roe was likely to be overturned, given the 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court. And yet they failed to adequately prepare for the fallout, and their celebration of finally overturning the most controversial court decision of our lifetime has yet to translate into coherent policy. Instead, the left has had a field day with the issue in state after state.
Evidence enough of the resonance of the Dobbs decision comes from solid red Ohio, where Donald Trump won by eight points in 2016 and 2020, but where the right to abortion was enshrined in the state constitution on Nov. 7 by a margin of 13%. In bright red Kentucky, where Trump won by 29 points in 2020, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear was easily re-elected. In fact, the only high-profile Republican who was victorious, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, was running against a pro-life Democrat, Elvis’ distant cousin Brandon Presley.
But the greatest damage to the conservative cause — and evidence of how the issue of abortion can victimize even a popular leader — was undoubtedly done by the voters of Virginia, where Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin put his fine reputation and millions of dollars on the line in trying to “hold the House, flip the Senate” in the Old Dominion. He failed on both counts, putting a decided dent in his armor as he considers a presidential run. It is fair to say that, had Youngkin succeeded, he could possibly have made a late run at the 2024 presidential nomination if Trump were to flame out. But now, knocked down a peg, he will almost certainly have to wait until 2028.
While it is true that a single issue like abortion has been known to dominate off-year voting more than federal elections, presidential contests are most often decided on the fundamental matters of peace and prosperity. But in 2020, the pandemic overwhelmed the typical core issues; for 2024, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision ending 50 years of a constitutional right to abort stands as another of those subjects that could energize the American left. While it is clearly a matter more resonant and stubborn than anticipated by the GOP, the only remaining question is the degree to which abortion can, for the first time ever, rise to level of a decisive issue in a presidential election.