In the leadup to the midterm elections, abortion rights and the economy have consistently polled as two of the top issues among voters. In the latest Gallup poll, they finished first and second: Forty-nine percent of registered voters said that the economy was “extremely important” to them, while 42 percent said the same of abortion.
After Kansas voters resoundingly rejected an anti-abortion ballot measure in August, many Democrats hoped that energy might carry them to a victory — or at least help them stave off a total defeat — in the midterms. However, according to a recent poll from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, Republican voters are more enthusiastic about the midterms than Democrats. Could it be that the post-Dobbs momentum to treat the midterms as a referendum on abortion has faded, and that the economy has eclipsed abortion as a motivating issue for voters? Media coverage certainly suggests so, and if that’s the case, Democrats are in trouble: Another poll from ABC News and Ipsos found that 36 percent of Americans trust Republicans to better handle their economic concerns, compared to just 24 percent who trust Democrats.
“We’ve really seen what I would say is a pundit-driven or even polling-driven narrative emerging that’s pitting abortion access against the economy,” Morgan Hopkins, president of All* Above All, told Truthout. All* Above All is a women-of-color-led organization that has worked for nearly a decade to frame access to abortion as a racial and economic justice issue, rather than simply a legal right. It began in 2013 as a campaign to end the Hyde Amendment, a policy that bars federal funds from being used for abortion, primarily affecting low-income people who rely on programs like Medicaid. “To a certain extent, that’s just how a lot of polls work,” Hopkins said. “People are asked to pick their top issue out of, say, five. But that is not an accurate representation of the way that we experience our daily lives. The decision about whether or not to become a parent absolutely is an economic decision for families.”
In other words, abortion and the economy aren’t separate issues; they’re deeply intertwined. Democrats have an opportunity to make the case for their party as the one that can help ensure Americans’ bodily autonomy, and by extension, their economic futures. Why aren’t they taking it?
Polls do suggest that abortion rights remain a motivating factor among key constituencies for Democrats. In the Gallup poll, 51 percent of Democrats said abortion was the single most important issue to them. A previous poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 59 percent of women under 50 and 62 percent of Black voters said the Supreme Court decision made them more likely to vote. Despite a swing toward the Republican Party in recent years, a poll commissioned by Voto Latino found that more than two-thirds of Latinos believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 64 percent said they were much more motivated to vote because of the Supreme Court decision.
Across nearly all of these polls, independent voters fall somewhere between Democrats and Republicans: They are motivated to vote because of the economy, but not as much as Republicans are, and motivated to vote because of abortion rights, but not as much as Democrats are. Of course, few independents are truly independent; voters tend to lean toward one party or another. This is one of the reasons why midterm contests hinge on turnout. It’s not very likely one party can win over a significant number of voters more inclined toward the other, so the results come down to who can get more people to cast ballots.
Meanwhile, both parties are well aware that midterm elections often punish the ruling party. Just such an upset in 2010 saw Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives along with six governorships. Republicans also flipped over a dozen state legislative chambers in that election, leading to a devastating cascade of state-level abortion restrictions that plunged much of the South and Midwest into a post-Roe reality long before Republicans successfully appointed a conservative majority to the Supreme Court.
In October, Sen. Bernie Sanders (technically an independent himself) wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian that it would be a mistake for Democrats to focus only on abortion in the midterms. The piece was met with frustration from many reproductive rights and justice organizers, in part because Sanders’s statements about reproductive health have often been clumsy despite his progressive politics. However, Sanders was right to suggest that if Democrats want to win, they have to persuade voters that they are better suited than Republicans to fix the economy. Given that the economy has historically fared better under Democratic presidents, it would seem this shouldn’t be such a heavy lift. But perhaps Democrats are afraid to dig too deep into discussions of the economy because doing so would necessarily involve admitting to their party’s own failures, including the stagnant federal minimum wage, corporate tax increases that fell short of President Biden’s original proposal and the Federal Reserve’s controversial rate hikes, which have so far failed to curb inflation.
As Sanders has long argued, Democrats need to take up the issues of class and income inequality in a serious way if they want to appeal to struggling middle- and low-income Americans. But in addition to admitting to past and current failures, that would require standing up to corporate interests, to which powerful Democrats are just as beholden as Republicans.
However, even Sanders fails to make a connection between abortion access and economic security. The most commonly cited reason for needing an abortion in the U.S. is economic distress, but Sanders doesn’t mention this once in his discussion of low wages and lack of affordable health care, housing, paid family leave and child care.
One Democrat who has made the connection is Stacey Abrams. “You can’t divorce being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy from the economic realities of having a child … women — half the population — especially those of childbearing age, they understand that having a child is absolutely an economic issue. It is only politicians who see it as simply another cultural conversation,” she said on Morning Joe. Republicans responded by calling her “despicable” and “demonic,” but didn’t refute her point. In Michigan, where abortion is on the ballot, Democrats Gretchen Whitmer and Elissa Slotkin have also tied abortion to the economy, albeit in an entirely different way: They’ve argued that banning abortion is bad for business and could lead employers to leave the state.
Why aren’t more Democrats on the campaign trail trying to connect these two top issues? It could be because, when it comes to abortion and the economy, “It’s complicated,” Caitlin Myers, John G. McCullough professor of economics at Middlebury College, told Truthout. “When people say ‘the economy,’ often what they’re thinking of is the macroeconomy, like GDP or unemployment rates,” she said. There’s no doubt that the decision of whether to have children, and when, is “the single most economically consequential decision most women make in their lives,” said Myers. But abortion bans aren’t yet widespread enough that Americans are seeing their potential macroeconomic effect.
“If we had a federal ban on all abortions, it would be a macroeconomic shock. It would dramatically affect the U.S. economy, and gender inequality in the U.S. economy,” Myers said, noting that the result of the U.S.’s current patchwork of state bans is that most people seeking abortions in the ban states still find a way to get out. “Now, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. A lot of them are suffering a great deal, but they are finding a way. What ends up happening is that a fraction, a minority of them don’t find a way. They get trapped. And the people who get trapped, it’s not random. They are disproportionately the poorest and the most vulnerable of an already poor and vulnerable population. And so, the economic story here right now is an inequality story. It’s a poverty story,” she said.
This was true even when Roe was the law. Consider the Turnaway Study, a five-year longitudinal study that compared people who received wanted abortions to those who were turned away because they were beyond the gestational limit of a particular facility. Among the most notable results of the study were its findings on the economic outcomes of being denied an abortion. Those in the “turnaway” group were more likely to receive food assistance, four times more likely to live below the federal poverty level and more likely to be raising their children alone five years on. A subsequent paper linked credit report data to the Turnaway Study, finding that people denied abortions saw a consequent increase in financial distress that was sustained for years.
When the Supreme Court was considering Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Myers organized a group of 154 economists to sign onto an amicus brief laying out just how devastating the effects of overturning Supreme Court precedent on abortion would be, citing these and dozens of other publications.
However, even if abortion becomes banned in about half the country — the worst-case scenario forecast for state-based bans — Myers said it likely wouldn’t be enough to generate a noticeable macroeconomic effect. It would still be a story of inequality, driving already disadvantaged people further into poverty. But that, said Hopkins, is precisely what Democrats should be saying to voters.
“Abortion bans are a direct threat to economic security. Having to pay out of pocket for abortion care — especially at a time when gas is expensive, food is expensive — the consequences of that on someone’s financial well-being can last for a long time,” she said. “We have to talk about more than just restoring the legal right to abortion. We have known for decades that the legal right was never enough. I think more candidates, and pundits as well, need to start understanding abortion access as, yes, a fundamental freedom, but one that also is about having agency over our lives and our economic security.”