In midterm battlegrounds across the country, Democrats defied political gravity. Despite an unpopular president, high inflation, and rising violent crime, the predicted “red wave” never materialized – and a major factor, according to polls, was abortion. 

Preliminary exit poll data suggests turnout for voters under 30 approached record levels for a midterm, with abortion that group’s No. 1 issue. The spark was the Supreme Court’s June ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade and devolved the legal status of abortion rights to the states.  

Why We Wrote This

Democrats campaigned on abortion rights – and it worked, helping the party beat midterm expectations. They’re likely to maintain that focus, even as the issue competes with other concerns.

Votes on ballot measures in California, Michigan, Vermont, Kentucky, and Montana all landed on the side of abortion rights. Those followed an August referendum in deep-red Kansas, where 59% voted in effect to keep the state’s constitutional right to abortion.

As with many political issues, the party seen as more extreme wound up getting penalized by voters. A large proportion of the public is in the middle on abortion – if the “middle” is defined as neither favoring nor opposing abortion rights in all cases, and including exceptions for rape and incest and to protect the life and health of the woman.

“If you’re out of that very large middle range, then your position is very unpopular,” says political scientist Matt Grossmann. “That’s the risk for each party.”

Soha Saghir and her friend Louisa Stoll braved the cold to vote on election night in Pennsylvania, and in a quick interview, made clear why they were there: abortion rights.

Ms. Saghir and Ms. Stoll, both 2021 graduates of Haverford College, are part of the wave of young voters who helped lift Democrats to a stronger-than-expected performance in this month’s midterms. Preliminary exit poll data suggests turnout for voters under 30 approached record levels for a midterm – and abortion was their No. 1 issue. The spark was the Supreme Court’s June ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade and devolved the legal status of abortion rights to the states.  

“I don’t feel super optimistic” about the future of reproductive rights on the national level, says Ms. Saghir, speaking on the Haverford campus, where she and her friend voted. But at the very least, the women agree, they can vote to support legal abortion in their state. 

Why We Wrote This

Democrats campaigned on abortion rights – and it worked, helping the party beat midterm expectations. They’re likely to maintain that focus, even as the issue competes with other concerns.

In Pennsylvania, a crucial electoral battleground this cycle, Democrats defied political gravity. Despite an unpopular president, high inflation, and rising violent crime, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman captured a GOP-held U.S. Senate seat, helping Democrats lock in control of the chamber come January. Democrats also held the governor’s office, won a majority in the state House for the first time in 12 years, and saw all their congressional incumbents win.  

Democrats in Pennsylvania and elsewhere were aided by weak Republican candidates, many of them backed by former President Donald Trump. Republicans did win a narrow majority in the U.S. House, and won the national vote by about 3 percentage points. But the predicted “red wave” never materialized – in part, polls suggest, because of the abortion issue. 

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