A new analysis by Politico of voting patterns in special elections since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade shows that rural voters have been less likely to turn out than their urban and suburban counterparts.
While high turnout among Democratic voters has been hailed as key to Democrats' better-than-expected showings in a handful of special elections since the Dobbs ruling, the rural nonvote has proven to be another factor working to Democrats’ advantage.
Politico looked at four special elections since the June ruling held in Nebraska, New York, and Minnesota and found that the portion of urban/suburban voters who cast ballots in those races outpaced the portion of rural voters who did by 5 points, 27%-22%. Prior to the Dobbs decision, those three groups were turning out at comparable rates.
In every one of those races, Democrats also outperformed Joe Biden's showing in the 2020 election.
The notion that the high court’s gutting of Roe is actually depressing the rural vote actually aligns with recent polling released by the progressive group Rural Organizing and YouGov Blue.
The survey found that a candidate's pro-choice position was the most important issue tested among rural voters polled in 10 battleground states, even outpacing party ID (i.e., being a Republican), which came in second. The polling also found that a hypothetical Democratic candidate got a far bigger boost in support among rural voters after an endorsement from an abortion rights group such as Planned Parenthood than it did from an endorsement by a labor group (e.g., AFL-CIO) or even the Farm Bureau.
As I wrote last week, while a Farm Bureau endorsement resulted in a 5-point bump (28% to 33%) for a Democratic candidate, a Planned Parenthood endorsement yielded an 18-point boost (24% to 42%). The impact was biggest among voters under 45, where a Planned Parenthood endorsement increased support for a Democratic candidate by 17 points, from 36% to 53%.
The campaign manager for one of the special elections analyzed by Politico said Dobbs has proven to be a double whammy for Republicans, hurting them with their own base while helping to more firmly solidify suburban voters in Democrats' camp.
“Republicans are not as energized as they want or expected, and Democrats are very energized right now,” said Chris Walsh, who managed Democrat Pat Ryan's successful campaign to win New York's 19th Congressional District in an August special election.
“The suburban voters who Republicans thought were just anti-Trump are now kind of coming to realize they’re anti-Republican,” Walsh added. “With the Dobbs decision, it really fired them up that this is still an existential fight for their lives.”
Walsh's GOP counterpart was eager to reframe the upcoming midterms as a referendum on President Joe Biden's leadership rather than the high court's enormously unpopular ruling overturning Americans’ constitutional right to an abortion.
“Democrats played politics, they knew having competitive primaries in [Ryan’s district] would boost turnout for the special election, and it would create this false narrative that the election was a referendum on Dobbs,” said Will Dawson, campaign manager for Marc Molinaro, Ryan’s Republican rival in August. “The midterm elections are and always have been a referendum on the White House.”
But the idea that Democrats pulled some crafty political jujitsu to reframe the narrative is laughable. In fact, the House Democratic campaign arm didn't even invest in the race. Republicans ultimately dropped $1.3 million on the NY-19 contest, outspending Democrats 3 to 1. Still, they not only lost, their candidate performed worse than Donald Trump's showing in the district in 2020.
Democrats aren't in total agreement about what accounts for the drop off in rural voting—a sense of complacency because Republicans finally achieved their goal of overturning Roe or an actual rejection of that decision.
“A lot of rural voters, they’re more conservative religiously and they were very mobilized by abortion and now they think they’ve won,” explained Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who worked on Biden’s 2020 campaign.
But former Democratic Montana Gov. Steve Bullock sees the effect of the Dobbs ruling on rural voters differently.
“I think it’s suppressing some of the Republican interest in rural areas,” Bullock said. "In rural areas where access to affordable and quality health care is already challenged, when you turn around and say that you’ll have no reproductive health care in many states, I think that’s in part why we’re seeing what we’re seeing.”
Either way, if it holds in November, depressed turnout among rural voters would hurt Republicans while boosting Democrats’ chances of either keeping the House or narrowing the governing margin that Republicans have to work with.
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Polling shows abortion rights to be a definitive issue among rural battleground voters
House Republicans just threw down almost $1 million to flip a red seat in rural Arizona
Since Dobbs, women have registered to vote in unprecedented numbers across the country, and the first person to dig into these stunning trends was TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier, who's our guest on this episode of The Downballot. Bonier explains how his firm gathers data on the electorate; why this surge is likely a leading indicator showing stepped-up enthusiasm among many groups of voters, including women, young people, and people of color; how we know these new registrants disproportionately lean toward Democrats; and what it all might mean for November.