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Strategists are analyzing how abortion influenced people's voting in the midterms

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Democrats were ready to lose in the midterms earlier this month, especially given President Biden's low approval ratings. Why they didn't do as poorly as expected is still a topic of conversation and debate, especially among activists on both sides of the abortion question. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Ahead of the midterms, pollsters and strategists and, yes, journalists were obsessed with voters' top issues. But then, people rarely vote with a single issue in mind. And that makes it hard to know how much abortion swayed the midterms. But there are a few things we can say. One is that the Roe overturn seems to have immediately motivated women, says Democratic strategist Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart.

TOM BONIER: Almost everywhere, what you saw was a pretty significant surge in gender gap in the, you know, two to four weeks after Dobbs. And then we saw an increase, but not, you know, not as pronounced after that.

KURTZLEBEN: Bonier and other strategists will be watching for more data to answer which women were fired up, as well as how much abortion motivated men. A second takeaway - pro-choice policies in isolation did well. Five abortion-related ballot measures all came out in favor of abortion rights, even in red states like Kentucky and Montana. And yet, says Democratic strategist Rachel Bitecofer...

RACHEL BITECOFER: There are millions of people who voted yes for a referendum to codify Roe or whatever, and then went and voted for pro-life conservative Republican candidates.

KURTZLEBEN: Furthermore, plenty of politicians who famously favor restricting abortion easily won - for example, Republican governors Greg Abbott in Texas and Ron DeSantis in Florida. Why is that? Bitecofer thinks it's about ineffective communication by abortion rights supporters.

BITECOFER: You want to make sure people understand this man is the guy who's signing into law the bill to steal your rights.

KURTZLEBEN: The problem so far has been breaking voters' connections to party identity.

BITECOFER: People like heuristics. They like something that can tell them what to do without any mental investment. And that's why the party label is so incredibly powerful.

KURTZLEBEN: Still, that's one Democratic take. Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of SBA Pro-Life America. She sees wins by Abbott and DeSantis as proof of their political power.

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: The one thing that you have in an election on the pro-life side, and we've always had, is the candidate, the human representation of the argument on the debate stage. The reason that the governors are winning well who have been ambitious for life is that they've been articulating their position. They have the bully pulpit of the governorships.

KURTZLEBEN: One takeaway that's harder to quantify is what kind of messaging works. For Dannenfelser, it's clear that Republicans failed, and the Democrats found a winning strategy.

DANNENFELSER: They ended up with a position that we need to label Republicans as for abortion bans generally and do not go into the specifics of what a Republican is for or a pro-life candidate is for.

KURTZLEBEN: Multiple Democratic strategists agree that staying away from gestational limits was smart, though they frame it differently. Here's Analilia Mejia, co-director of the progressive Center for Popular Democracy.

ANALILIA MEJIA: I think it was not only smart but right of them to say there isn't some line, there isn't some, like, countdown clock in which you go from being a full autonomous human being to property of the state.

KURTZLEBEN: That leaves open the question of what the parties see as their best paths going forward. To Republican pollster Whit Ayres, his party needs to abandon the tightest abortion measures.

WHIT AYRES: We have a number of laws that have been passed by Republican legislatures that are far from the mainstream, that include no exceptions, for example, for rape or incest. And that's the very definition of outside the mainstream.

KURTZLEBEN: The question is what Republicans do with that information. In the midterms, many Republican candidates avoided the topic of abortion. To Dannenfelser, that was a mistake.

DANNENFELSER: One thing you cannot do is expect to be a successful primary Republican candidate who says it's a states issue, and I don't expect to ever promote or sign a federal 15-week or heartbeat protection.

KURTZLEBEN: Rebecca Katz, senior adviser for John Fetterman's Senate campaign, likewise thinks her party needs to not just message but pass abortion rights legislation.

REBECCA KATZ: I don't think that folks should just be high-fiving because we won a cycle with such a devastating impact. Right? Like, there is a lot of work to be done.

KURTZLEBEN: Both sides will be plowing ahead, in other words, just with new information about who might support them and how. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEN SUICIDE'S "COYOTE (2015-2021)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.