Commentary: Like elections, court decisions have consequences

The GOP has told itself it won’t face voter backlash over the end of Roe. We’ll soon find out.

By Philip Bump / The Washington Post

Donald Trump’s response to the repeal of Roe v. Wade on Friday was characteristically uncomplicated.

“I think, in the end, this is something that will work out for everybody,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News. “This brings everything back to the states where it has always belonged.”

Trump, of course, is famous for having reversed his opinion on abortion before seeking the Republican nomination for president and for having moderated his position on it in real time on the campaign trail in 2016. He understood the abortion issue fundamentally as a vehicle for bolstering his political support, and, as was the case with his base more broadly, he spent much of his presidency working to strengthen that support. For many abortion opponents, politics was the cumbersome path to achieving their desired moral outcomes. For Trump, abortion was the cumbersome path to achieving his desired political ones.

But his flippancy after the court’s decision is not unique. After a draft of the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was released, other conservative commentators assured their audiences that the effects of repealing Roe would be limited.

“If the court threw out Roe,” Andrew McCarthy said on Fox News in May, for example, “what we are going to find is when everybody woke up the next day, the sky will not have fallen.”

It’s clear why this is appealing to these men: They’d like to convince themselves that the change they’d advocated and achieved would not have broad negative repercussions. But that thesis is about to get a dramatic test; and there’s good reason to think that the “it’ll all be OK” theory will not carry the day.

Polling on this is a bit hard to parse, in part because the change is so dramatic. In the aftermath of the leak of the draft decision, there wasn’t a noticeable change in the generic ballot for Congress. Republicans were poised to do well this November, thanks to a confluence of factors (historic patterns, President Joe Biden’s low approval rating, concerns about inflation) and that position seemed to hold.

But that was when the prospect of Roe being overturned was still theoretical. It’s also a second-order measure; it’s not a consideration of how people feel about voting for Congress in light of the change to Roe.

Efforts to figure out how political events effect vote choice are notoriously fraught. People’s responses on questions about whether they’re more or less likely to back candidates that, say, will fight to protect access to abortions are often downstream from how the respondents felt about the candidates in the first place. Are you more or less likely to vote for the Republican senator in your state knowing the person backed Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court? Well, most Republicans will say that they’re more likely to vote for that senator, even though they were going to vote for the person anyway. Most Democrats will say they became less likely to do so, even though they never were likely to vote for the person. It’s hard to disentangle this.

But we can read the tea leaves to some extent.

In March, polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation determined that about half of Americans would feel “sad” or “angry” about a repeal of Roe. That included 7 in 10 Democrats who anticipated feeling angry; suggesting that they might then seek some political response.

Perhaps more interesting in that poll, as CNN’s Ariel Edwards-Levy pointed out, many residents of states with “trigger” laws — legislation that bans abortion immediately upon Roe being overturned — didn’t know they lived in such states. And why would they? These were “what if” laws for something that seemed only like a fairly remote possibility for a long time. Forty-five percent of women ages 18 to 49 in states with “trigger” laws didn’t know those laws existed when KFF asked. Learning that the laws governing their ability to get an abortion had suddenly changed might be expected to be jarring.

Fifty-six percent of women in that age group nationally, incidentally, reported that they would be angry if Roe fell.

In CNN’s polling, conducted in January, most Americans reported knowing someone who’d had an abortion. Six in 10 Democrats said someone close to them had undergone the procedure; 7 in 10 Republicans did as well. This is a reflection of something that, in the years since Roe was decided, had become common; and now would in many places be unavailable.

Trump is correct that abortion does not immediately become illegal everywhere, instead falling to state-level determinations in the absence of a federal ban. Places where it will remain legal, though, are largely Democratic strongholds where voters might be expected to be angrier about the court’s decision. Places where Republicans have political power are more likely to see triggered or eventual bans on abortion that could stoke direct anger at the change in the law.

Anger does not always translate into political activism, of course. There has been enormous frustration on the left even before the Dobbs decision about the Democratic Party’s failure to better protect access to abortion or to respond to the shifting legal terrain. Some of that is a function of the way in which political systems disadvantage Democrats. Some of it, clearly, is inaction. Will voters angry at Dobbs prioritize going to the polls to support a party they blame for allowing Dobbs to happen?

One place where that anger might manifest itself is in state-level races. Suddenly, races for state legislatures and governorships are proxies for protecting or rescinding abortion access. While federal races often get attention and trickle down to state contests, we may see elections this fall in which voters are coming out to vote for governor but then vote up-ballot along party lines.

It’s hard to predict. This is uncharted territory, this reversal of a highly controversial ruling at a moment of deep anger and tension.

What is safe to predict is that this will not “work out for everybody.”

Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York.

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