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Swing Voters Say: ‘Abortion vs. Inflation’ Is a False Choice

It’s complicated.
May 20, 2022
Swing Voters Say: ‘Abortion vs. Inflation’ Is a False Choice
A view of the U.S. Supreme Court at sunset on November 29, 2021 in Washington, DC. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear a case concerning a Mississippi law that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When we conducted a pair of focus groups on May 10 with 13 Georgia swing voters, one question stood out: Will the November elections be more about abortion or inflation?

We took our cue from the previous day’s news reports, where a headline in the Washington Post declared: “GOP’s midterm bet: Voters will care more about inflation than abortion.” The same day, a Yahoo News headline proclaimed: “Democrats plan to emphasize abortion in the midterms. Republicans plan to ‘change the topic.’”

We wanted to know: Assuming this dynamic is correct, which party has the smarter strategy when it comes to attracting Trump-to-Biden swing voters in November? As it often turns out with this unique category of voters, the reality is more complex than a simple binary choice.

If these persuadable voters are any indication, both parties are failing miserably in framing the midterm elections. Democrats are failing to animate swing voters over abortion rights, and Republicans are failing to lay the blame for high inflation at Biden’s doorstep.

Let’s start with abortion. None of our 13 swing voters—six Republicans, three Democrats, and four independents—are planning to vote for Democrats in November specifically as a way to protest the expected overturning of Roe v. Wade. While all of them oppose such a decision, only a handful feel strongly enough to do anything about it personally. For example, only three said they would go out and protest. Three others said they might sign a petition.

Their comments fell along this range of reactions:

“I believe in pro-life, but at the same time, I believe in women’s rights. So I’m . . . divided on that. I really am,” said Jeanne, 60, from Mableton.

“Politicians want to make [abortion] such a black and white issue, and there’s so much grey in it,” remarked Laura, 44, from Marietta. “I just don’t think that we’re ready to completely overturn it. And honestly, it should be up to the woman if she wants to get an abortion or not, but I do think there should be certain circumstances allowed and not allowed.”

“I definitely don’t agree with [overturning Roe],” explained Xaveria, 40, from Atlanta. “I think no one should be able to tell a woman what she should be able to do in that situation. It just seems like it’s just a violation of human rights.”

Eugene, 42, from Decatur, said, “I am not pleased about abortions potentially becoming illegal across the United States.”

Kayleigh, 33, from Atlanta, commented, “I think [overturning Roe] is ridiculous. I personally am pro-choice and pro-women’s rights. It’s up to the woman to decide what to do with her body. While I know that if this is overturned, every single abortion is not going to become illegal tomorrow . . . I think that there are so many different situations in which women need to make that decision, and each situation is different. To just overturn something that’s been so deeply rooted in democracy for so long, I think it’s ten steps in the opposite direction.”

Nearly all were concerned that if abortion rights are taken away, other rights could follow. None of them support a nationwide ban on abortion, nor a bill that was under consideration in the Louisiana legislature—since withdrawn—that would criminalize the procedure. Yet come November, many of these voters said they will be more animated to vote because of concerns over gun control, taxes, climate change, the war in Ukraine, the economy, and inflation than over abortion rights.

Speaking of inflation, 11 of our 13 swing voters said inflation is a major concern for them, and 12 expect inflation to keep rising into 2023. When asked who they blame for inflation, though, none of them volunteered President Biden or solely Democrats. Instead, they cited corporations, Vladimir Putin, stimulus checks, and COVID as culprits.

Billy, 47, from Atlanta, remarked, “I don’t blame one specific person, and I don’t blame one specific side either. I think everybody has a part in inflation. The prices are prices, and I think you can call out both sides for it—Democrats and Republicans.”

When we asked specifically whether respondents blame President Biden for inflation, no one responded affirmatively. When pressed, seven conceded that he shares “at least some responsibility” for the inflation America has been enduring.

It’s a reminder that issue matrices are complex, and the stories that drive headlines don’t always drive votes in straight-forward and predictable ways.

Rich Thau and Matt Steffee

Rich Thau is the president of the research firm Engagious, which specializes in message testing and message refinement for trade associations and advocacy groups. He is also the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, conducted in partnership with Schlesinger Group.
Matt Steffee is vice president of research services at Engagious.