Watch out for Abortion….the sleeper issue of the 2020 election cycle

Karen O'Connor | Aug 20, 2019


During and in the aftermath of the 1992 presidential election, pundits including Bill Clinton’s lead strategist, James Carville, generally agreed that the key issue in the race was, “the economy, stupid.”  A detailed analysis of the 1992 American National Election Study (ANES), however, showed that in the words of one prominent presidential elections scholar that instead, the election was about “…abortion, stupid.” Attitudes toward abortion were far more critical to election choice than previously understood.  And, those attitudes had a stronger impact on vote choice than other policy issues including “affirmative action, social welfare, defense spending, the Gulf War, and the death penalty.”  Perhaps more important, as we look ahead to the 2020 elections, is the finding that among voters who held strong opinions on abortion, it was the candidate’s stance on abortion that guided their vote.

With the 2020 presidential election campaign upon us, it is important to recognize that abortion remains highly salient to voters. One Pew Research Center study found that more pro-choice Republicans than pro-life Democrats defected from the party to vote for a pro-choice candidate.  So far, in the run up to the key Democratic caucuses and primaries, but for the “reveal” that Joe Biden had repeatedly voted for the Hyde Amendment, which largely eliminated federal funds for indigent women to obtain abortions, abortion has been left out of the policy agenda and given the short shrift in the four nationally televised debates among the Democratic contenders for their party’s nod.

A September 2018 PEW Research Center poll revealed that voters were very concerned about Supreme Court appointments: 81% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans.  In fact, the Court was the most frequently noted issue of import, with health care next.  Abortion ranked only 14th, but this poll was taken in the aftermath of the Kavanaugh hearings and before significant media attention was given to the new abortion measures, such as making abortion a crime after the detection of a fetal heart beat or limiting abortions to various stages from conception to 18 weeks.

With more than half of the states now limiting abortion access, the issue is likely to gain more traction as we approach the 2020 elections.  If the Women’s March and the 2018 midterms told us anything, when women get riled up, they don’t just take to the streets, they vote.

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