We’re now just 67 days from Election Day, and the narrative around the midterms has shifted dramatically. A year that began with a focus on inflation concerns and the cost of living has turned into anger and frustration over American rights and freedoms — particularly access to abortion, guns and the ballot box.
Women almost always vote at higher rates than men do, and we have seen indications that more are registering to vote in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that ended a federal right to abortion. But as the Labor Day holiday officially kicks off the sprint to the general election, I wanted to hear from women pollsters about what’s driving Republicans, independents and swing voters in this moment, and how gender and the GOP might be intersecting in interesting ways.
My takeaway from what they shared: The 2022 midterms look different than they did six months or a year ago. Cost of living is still front of mind for many women, but issues of choice — on abortion, on the freedom to vote — have risen in relevance. The moment feels existential for many women, including independents and swing voters, and it’s all on their minds when they describe the country as “headed in the wrong direction” to pollsters.
Historically, the president’s party loses seats in a midterm election, and at the beginning of the year most prognosticators saw voters headed in Republicans’ direction.
Will the changing dynamics be enough to buck history for the party in power this fall? Either way, it will be women who once again tell the story.
In 2019, veteran GOP strategist Sarah Longwell started her communications firm, Longwell Partners, and became publisher of conservative news site The Bulwark. For nearly a year, she has conducted weekly focus groups with voters featured as the subject of her podcast, The Focus Group.
Longwell has long listened to persuadable Republican voters and independents, but lately she has also been talking to more Democratic-leaning voters. We spoke as she was taping her latest episode, where she pondered what she called “the vibe shift” that has happened this cycle.
“I’ve been able to watch people make shifts as different things come to dominate,” Longwell said. “Last September and October, there was this asymmetric enthusiasm between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans, because they thought the election was stolen and that somehow they’d been wronged, could not wait to vote for ‘any living breathing Republican’” — a direct quote, she told me.
Democrats, on the other hand were “down in the dumps,” either convinced that President Joe Biden was too far left or too centrist, worried about his age, wondering where he and Vice President Kamala Harris were on the campaign trail after six years of nonstop coverage of former President Donald Trump.
“There was this moment where the whole election was going to be a referendum on Joe Biden,” Longwell, who has been an outspoken never-Trumper, continued. “And then a few things happened, sort of in quick succession.”
There were tragic shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Highland Park, Illinois, that shocked and angered voters, pushing Congress to pass federal gun legislation for the first time in a generation. The coronavirus surged anew, but it did not bring a new round of panic, with millions who had gotten and survived the illness and millions of others now vaccinated and boosted.
And then there was the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that ended federal abortion protections.
When Longwell began asking open-ended questions to swing-voting women about their priorities after the decision was leaked earlier this year, they would answer inflation, health care or the economy.
“If you asked them specifically about abortion, they would get super animated about it and say it would affect their voting behavior,” she said, but they wouldn’t bring it up on their own. “Once (the ruling) actually happened, suddenly you’d start to hear about it more organically. It started to become a top issue for people. I have heard from a number of women who are pro-life, but they believe in the right to choose. That is a real thing.”
Longwell said that what started as a referendum election — do voters think Biden is doing a good job or not? — is now a choice election — which party do voters trust more to make decisions about their rights? She predicts this will translate at the ballot box, as voters see the election as a choice about the right to abortion and as Republicans have nominated candidates who many view as extreme.
“There’s a literal choice, there’s a real person,” Longwell said. “Choice is on the ballot now.”
Kristen Soltis Anderson is an author, radio show host and pollster focused on conservative millennial voters. Anderson recalled being able to predict with reasonable certainty younger voters’ approval of the president based on their age during the eras of Trump and former President Barack Obama — with younger voters favoring Obama and not liking Trump.
In Anderson’s polling, young voters have been among the least likely to approve of Biden’s job performance.
“They were just disappointed and tuning out,” she said. “The expectation from the data six months ago would have suggested they were not as fired up about this midterm. But you’re beginning to see younger voters reengage.”
Anderson predicts Republicans still have a slight advantage in November races —but, she says, it’s reduced in the wake of the Dobbs decision. But she does wonder what happened to the parents — moms, in particular — who were fired up last year and were among the coalition that propelled Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to victory on issues like cost of living and critical race theory.
Another national conversation that has faded is around guns. Abortion, though, has been sustained over the past few months, as state laws are being challenged or implemented in the weeks following the Supreme Court ruling.
“The Dobbs decision has had such sticking power because there’s like this second life to it. The gun issue really rises and falls in potency based on what’s going on in the news,” Anderson said.
“You have moments that are tragic and take over the national headlines and everyone’s heart is broken, but then they move on to something else,” she continued. “The abortion issue has continued to pop up at the state level, and that’s what’s keeping it salient for voters in a way that another issue that is very emotional and very important might still, nevertheless, fade away.”
Another shift since the beginning of the year, according to a Quinnipiac poll, is in the number of Americans who see our democracy as in danger. More than two-thirds of Americans say they do — and the figure is even higher for women than men.
There are signs Democrats are trying to tap into that sentiment, with Harris on the trail making the case that the party will protect rights and freedoms, and Biden telling a cheering crowd last month, “The MAGA Republicans have awakened to the powerful force in America: the women of this nation. … MAGA Republicans don’t have a clue about the power of women. Let me tell you something: They are about to find out.”
Rights are on the ballot in November, and the two Republican pollsters I talked to see them as only gaining relevance as the country gets closer to the election. Inflation was and is an issue for voters — but abortion and voting have joined it. They’re all women’s issues.