There was every reason to expect close elections.
Instead, Tuesday’s resounding victory for abortion rights supporters in Kansas provided some of the most concrete evidence yet that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade changed the political landscape. The win, by a 59-41 margin in a Republican stronghold, suggests the Democrats will be the forceful party on an issue where Republicans have generally had an enthusiasm advantage.
The Kansas vote implies that about 65% of voters nationwide would reject a similar initiative to roll back abortion rights, including in more than 40 of the 50 states (a few states on either side are very close to 50- 50). This is a rough estimate, based on how demographic characteristics predicted the results of recent abortion referenda. But it’s an evidence-based way to come to a pretty obvious conclusion: If abortion rights wins 59% support in Kansas, it’s doing even better than the whole country.
It’s a tally that’s in line with recent national surveys that showed greater support for legal abortion after the court ruling. And the high turnout, especially among Democrats, confirms that abortion isn’t just an issue of importance to political activists. The abortion policy stakes have become high enough that it alone can drive strong midterm turnout.
None of this proves the issue will help Democrats in the midterm elections. And there are limits to what can be learned from the Kansas data. But the lopsided margin makes one thing clear: the political winds are now at the back of abortion-rights supporters.
A surprisingly decisive result
There haven’t been many public polls in the run-up to the Kansas election, but the best available data suggests voters would likely be fairly evenly split on abortion.
In a compilation of the Times national poll released this spring, 48% of Kansas voters said they thought abortion should be mostly legal, compared with 47% who thought it should be mostly illegal. Similarly, the study on cooperative elections in 2020 revealed that the state registered voters were also divided on whether abortion should be legal.
The results of recent similar referendums in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia have also indicated a close race in Kansas – perhaps even a race in which a “no” vote to preserve the right to abortion would have the advantage.
As with the Kansas vote, a “yes” vote in each of these four states’ initiatives would have amended a state’s constitution to allow for significant restrictions on abortion rights or abortion funding. Unlike Kansas, the initiatives passed in all four states, including a 24-point victory in Louisiana in 2020. But support for abortion rights outpaced support for Democratic presidential candidates in relatively white areas. of the four states, especially in the less religious areas outside. the deep south.
It’s a pattern that suggests abortion rights would enjoy far more support than Joe Biden as a candidate in a relatively white state like Kansas — perhaps even enough for the right to abortion is favored to survive.
It may seem surprising that pro-abortion supporters even have a chance in Kansas, given the state’s long tradition of voting Republicans. But Kansas is more Republican than Conservative. The state has an above-average number of college graduates, a group that has turned to Democrats in recent years.
Kansas voted for Donald J. Trump by about 15 percentage points in 2020, enough to make him a pretty sure Republican. Still, that’s not entirely out of place for Democrats. Republicans have learned this the hard way; look no further than the 2018 Democratic victory in the race for governor.
Even so, a landslide victory for abortion rights in Kansas did not seem like a likely outcome, either based on polls or recent initiatives. The most likely explanations for the surprise: Voters may be more supportive of abortion rights in the wake of Roe’s overthrow (as national polls imply); they can be more cautious about eliminating abortion rights now that these initiatives have real political consequences; abortion-rights supporters may be more motivated to go to the polls.
Abortion rights advocates don’t always find it so easy to advance their cause. They defended the status quo in Kansas; elsewhere, they will try to overturn the ban on abortion.
Whatever the explanation, if abortion advocates could fare as well as they did in Kansas, they would stand a good chance of advocating for abortion rights almost anywhere in the country. The state may not be as conservative as Alabama, but it’s far more conservative than the nation as a whole — and the result hasn’t been close. There are only seven states – in the Deep South and the Mountain West – where proponents of abortion rights should fail in a hypothetically similar initiative.
A change in turnout
If there’s a rule about partisan participation in American politics, it’s that registered Republicans show up at higher rates than registered Democrats.
Although the Kansas numbers are still preliminary, it appears registered Democrats were more likely to vote than registered Republicans.
A total of 276,000 voters took part in the Democratic primary, which was also held on Tuesday, compared to 451,000 who voted in the Republican primary. The Democratic tally stood at 56% of the number of registered Democrats in the state, while the number of Republican primary voters was 53% of the number of registered Republicans. (Unaffiliated voters are the second-largest group in Kansas.)
In Johnson County, outside of Kansas City, Mo., 67% of registered Democrats ran, compared to 60% of registered Republicans.
It’s a rare feat for Democrats in a high-turnout election. In neighboring Iowa, where historical turnout data is readily available, the turnout of Registered Democrats in a general election has never eclipsed the turnout of Registered Republicans for at least 40 years.
The higher Democratic turnout helps explain why the outcome was less favorable than expected for abortion opponents. And it confirms that Democrats are now much more forceful on the issue of abortion, reversing a trend from the recent election. It could even raise hopes among Democrats that they could defy the presidential party’s long-standing trend of low turnout in midterm elections.
For Republicans, the turnout numbers may offer a modest silver lining. They might reasonably expect turnout to be more favorable midterm in November, when abortion won’t be the only issue on the ballot and Republicans will have many other reasons to vote, including controlling Congress. .