Democrats appeared to be heading into the 2022 midterms with a perceived voter enthusiasm deficit brought on by inflation and an unpopular incumbent president. But over the last few months, the party’s outlook for the midterms has significantly improved, and many political strategists attribute the shift at least in part to voters’ outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Many of these strategists — like Simon Rosenberg and James Carville — believe the threat of further restrictions on abortion access should the GOP take control of Congress, governor’s mansions, and statehouses will energize Democratic turnout in the fall. Several recent elections — including in New York’s 19th, where the Democratic winner centered his campaign on abortion access and the resounding rejection of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed state lawmakers to further restrict abortion access in Kansas — have been taken as early signs that Democrats are likely to fare better than expected in the fall.
Voter registration is another factor to consider when making midterm predictions. Tom Bonier, the CEO of the political data firm TargetSmart, has been analyzing publicly available voter files for every state. And he says that the data shows that young people (particularly young women) are registering to vote at a significantly higher rate in states where abortion rights are under threat since the Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. That includes Kansas, where women registered to vote at more than twice the rate men did in the weeks between the ruling and the August 2 referendum on the constitutional amendment.
I spoke with Bonier about his findings and what they mean for Democrats’ midterm prospects. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
I know it’s still only been a few months, but I was hoping that you might be able to step back and give us a sense of what we do know, and we don’t know yet about how Dobbs is affecting voter registration.
Kansas was the first state I looked at to see what had been going on leading up to the ballot initiative there. Voter registration data lags by a little bit, just depending on how and when the state reports it. But we were able to get enough data from Kansas, basically looking at registered voters before Dobbs and after Dobbs, and saw that women were 69 percent of the new registrants post-Dobbs and up to the ballot initiative election, which was crazy. I’ve just never seen anything like it.
Generally, voter registration is split pretty close to 50-50. It varies a little bit by state, but not much. To see a period of time over several weeks where women accounted for almost 70 percent of registered voters — I’ve never seen anything like that.
The Dobbs decision engaged women in Kansas to an unprecedented degree.— Tom Bonier (@tbonier) August 3, 2022
This chart shows the percent of new registrants in the state who were women (as a 7 day average). Note the spike after the Dobbs decision leaked, and huge jump after the Supreme Court handed it down. pic.twitter.com/pvi3WpuR86
Then, we started looking at other states. There’s no state that comes close to Kansas in terms of that size of the gender gap, which makes sense. I mean, Kansas seems almost impossible. But in Kansas, they also had an immediate constitutional amendment ballot initiative as a referendum on the future of choice in the state. So it would make sense that women were more energized there than they might be in other states because the pattern that seems to be holding up is that the surges in registration among women seem to be more closely connected to states where choice is more at risk or it’s more relevant to specific elections this year.
To me, that’s interesting because I think people might assume it’s mostly going to be a blue state, big city phenomenon. And it’s just not the case. Kansas is the number one state [in terms of the gender gap], Idaho is number two, Louisiana is in the top five. But then you also have states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, and Michigan and Wisconsin, that all have significant gender gaps, as well. We’re talking more like 12 points, not 40 points, like you had in Kansas. But still, that’s substantial.
Here are the states with the biggest gender gap among new registrants since the Dobbs decision was handed down. This isn't just a blue state phenomena. In fact, it is more pronounced in states where choice is more at risk, or has been eliminated by the decision. pic.twitter.com/X4Kj2oG550— Tom Bonier (@tbonier) August 17, 2022
Do we have a sense of who these women are who are registering? And what about men?
It’s mostly younger women. In Kansas, over half of the women who registered to vote after Dobbs were under the age of 25 — 52 percent. You do see increases in the states among younger men, too. It’s just not keeping up. It certainly is an issue that seems to be energizing younger voters in general, just more so younger women than men.
Texas was an interesting one, because I thought that you would see a similar gender gap just given the political dynamics there. And what was interesting is women and men are registering at almost even rates in Texas. But what we have seen is much higher registration rates among younger voters in general. To me, that doesn’t suggest that women aren’t energized — it just suggests that younger women and younger men in Texas seem to be energized around Dobbs and are registering at high rates.
Do Democrats have more to gain here from these new registrations? The fact that women are registering at a higher rate would suggest that it’s a high salience issue, but not necessarily what their position is.
In every state that I’ve looked at so far, when you look at the under-25 voters who have registered since Dobbs, and then compare them to the under-25 voters who registered this year prior to Dobbs, they’re even more Democratic. You see the same pattern with women who are registering post-Dobbs versus those who registered prior to Dobbs. They’re more likely to be registered as Democrats by a pretty wide margin.
If you want to look at it through the partisan lens, all the data we’re seeing at this point suggests that the registration surge since Dobbs is very much to the benefit of Democrats.
You’ve been talking about this in terms of younger voters and women making up a larger share of newly registered voters. I’m also wondering to what extent we are seeing a surge in the number of registrations generally, or whether that’s hard to measure.
For our analysis, we’re looking at what percent of the new registrants are men and women, [Democrat] versus Republican or unaffiliated or independent. Generally, as we get closer to the election and until we hit registration deadlines in both states, what we’ll see is more people registering in general. So just seeing more women register to vote by itself isn’t meaningful — but seeing women occupy a larger share of the registers is.
It’s not necessarily just relevant in that we’re going to have more new registrants, and therefore, there’ll be this surge of new voters voting in November who can impact the outcome of the election. Certainly, there’s the potential for that to some degree. But even in high turnout presidential elections, first-time voters generally only account for a relatively small share of the electorate, maybe 7 to 15 percent of voters. In a midterm election, it’s generally going to be a smaller share.
What’s interesting to me is, when you see surges in enthusiasm reflected in registration historically, it almost always is then mirrored in surges in enthusiasm and turnout among those groups overall. So it stands to reason that what we’re seeing isn’t just relevant because it means more women are eligible to vote, but it indicates that women in general are far more attuned to this election and therefore far more likely to vote.
We saw it in 2018, when younger voters were registering at a much higher rate than they had in the previous two midterms. And sure enough, younger voters almost doubled their vote share between 2014 and 2018. So the data we’re seeing here is similar.