• Politics
  • abortion

Voters’ Top Issue Is the Economy, But Democrats Hope Abortion Will Resonate More

8 minute read

Brandy Ahmed’s conversations began by focusing on public education and investing in the community. But as she stepped over Halloween decorations and brightly colored foliage to knock doors in her old neighborhood in Macomb County, Mich. in early October, there was another topic that consistently warmed voters to her approach: abortion rights.

This culturally conservative part of the metro Detroit area wouldn’t previously be a place where political campaigns would discuss the details of abortion policy. But now Democrats like Ahmed’s mother Veronica Klinefelt, who is running in one of the state’s most hotly contested legislative races, are hoping the debate over abortion can help them win back suburban voters who might otherwise not cast ballots in a midterm election.

As Ahmed spoke to voters, one woman told her she was concerned about the lack of exceptions for rape, incest and medical conditions in many of the abortion bans around the country. “There’s a lot of gray areas,” the woman said. Ahmed reassured another concerned voter that Klinefelt would advocate for reproductive rights if elected to the state senate.

“In Macomb County, a lot of people will say, ‘personally, I’m pro life, but I believe that it’s a woman’s choice,’” Klinefelt says. The end of Roe v. Wade has “been an eye-opener.”

Klinefelt and other Democratic candidates are hoping that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn a constitutional right to abortion and leave abortion policy up to the states will animate voters to support them this fall. But while Democrats highlight the stakes that elections around the country now hold for abortion access, Republicans believe they have an advantage in the final weeks as polls show the economy is top of mind for voters. Polls in recent days have shown that more Americans trust Republicans to do a better job on the economy and gas prices than Democrats, and that the share of voters who said economic concerns are the most important problem facing the country jumped to 44% in October from 36% in July. While President Joe Biden and some Democrats are sharpening their focus on inflation, many say the party has struggled to find a unified message to sell their economic policies to voters. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont warned Democrats about focusing too much on abortion in an opinion piece in the Guardian earlier this month: “While the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy,” he wrote.

Despite the worrying economic polling for Democrats, other surveys have shown the party leading in high profile races where abortion has been a major issue. Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer led her opponent Tudor Dixon 52% to 46% among likely voters in a CNN poll released Monday, for example, while Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro led Republican Doug Mastriano 56% to 41%. Another CNN poll found Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman leading Dr. Mehmet Oz 51% to 45% before Tuesday’s debate. And while the debate showcased Fetterman’s communication challenges as he recovers from a stroke, Oz came under fire for saying abortion decisions should be between “women, doctors, local political leaders.” Fetterman’s campaign announced it raised more than $1 million in just three hours after the showdown.

Read More: Michigan Is Fighting One of the Most Significant Abortion Battles in the Country

Even as voters worry about the economy, Bryan Bennett, a pollster at progressive data firm Navigator Research, says abortion has had staying power as a major issue for voters since the Supreme Court’s June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The group’s most recent survey asked voters about which issues facing the country they were most afraid of, and 46% said they were “very afraid” about a recession in the U.S. economy, with 44%—the next largest group—saying they were “very afraid” of “losing your rights.” For Democratic women, the priorities flipped, with 48% saying losing their rights was the top fear and 34% saying they were “very afraid” of a recession.

Navigator Research also asked voters an open-ended question about what issues they thought politicians were most focused on, and found that the biggest word for Democratic and independent voters asked about Republican candidates was abortion. For Democratic candidates, abortion came up as the biggest word for voters across all parties. Abortion has also remained biggest word in a word cloud that Navigator researchers have made each survey since June after asking voters about the negative news they’re hearing. “Regardless of what they’re hearing in communications from specific candidates, there is pretty strong evidence to suggest that abortion is going to be a very important issue at the ballot box,” Bennett says.

Ryan Irvin, co-founder of Change Media Group, which has been making ads for Democratic candidates this year, says his team has tested ads on the economy, health care, and prescription drugs, and still found that abortion-related messages are resonating strongly with voters. “Choice issues have come to the top as the most persuasive,” he says.

Progressive abortion stances may also be resonating with a surprising demographic: Latino voters. Republicans have been courting Latinos following former President Donald Trump’s gains among the group in 2020, and given that many Latinos are Catholic, they haven’t traditionally been considered natural fits for abortion-rights messaging. But new polling may show otherwise: 71% of Latino voters said they supported a federal law to protect abortion in a new BSP research poll commissioned by Voto Latino and first shared with TIME. Latino voters in battleground states cited women’s right to abortion as the second-most important issue facing voters, the first time that the issue of abortion has risen to that level of importance in a Voto Latino poll, according to María Teresa Kumar, the group’s president and CEO. “We are social justice Catholics,” says Kumar. “We know that even the decision of abortion is a very private issue.”

The top issue for most had to do with the economy: while 23% of Latino respondents from battleground states Texas, Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Georgia said that protecting a woman’s right to abortion was the most important issue, 48% cited the cost of living and inflation as their top concern. But a majority of Latino voters (57%) said Republican policies and candidates have moved too far to the “extreme right,” compared with 43% who said Democrats have moved too far to the left. Latinos were also turned off by Trump-style candidates, with 60% saying “MAGA Republicans are a threat to American democracy.”

Read More: The Fight for Latino Voters in Nevada Is the Future of American Politics

Voto Latino found similar results in ad testing it conducted this summer. The group showed a range of ads about issues including the economy, abortion, infrastructure, and the Jan. 6 insurrection to Latino adults who identified as moderate, and found that the most effective ad overall was one in which a woman explains she is religious but still concerned about Republicans taking away the right to abortion. “I grew up deeply steeped in the church,” the woman says, facing the camera. “I don’t know if I would ever feel comfortable having an abortion, but that is a decision that should be made by a woman and her doctor.” People shown the ad were 14 points more likely to vote for a Democrat than those shown a placebo ad.

Meredith Kelly, a Democratic strategist who led communications for the House Democratic campaign arm in 2018, says that while the idea of Republicans “taking away” abortion rights could motivate voters, Democrats need to fight to win Americans who may have gone “numb” after settling into the new post-Roe reality. But she argues that Democrats can remind voters about the consequences of Republicans likely passing more abortion restrictions if they take control of Congress and more state governments. “There’s a lot of future impact that is not yet felt,” Kelly says. “Making sure that people understand what could tragically come ahead for them, especially if Republicans were to take control of Congress, is important.”

Those kinds of concerns have been resonating with some voters across the political spectrum in Michigan. Krystal Carpenter, a lifelong conservative in Mount Pleasant, Mich. who got an abortion after being assaulted as a teenager, recently told TIME that she and her husband will be voting for Whitmer this fall because of her support for abortion rights. Shortly after Roe was overturned in June, Carpenter had a doctor’s appointment, and to her shock was told she needed her husband’s permission to get a Pap smear because of the way the office interpreted the state’s restrictive 1931 abortion law. “I was furious,” Carpenter says. (The 1931 law is now blocked by state courts.) “A party that I’ve given my time, I’ve given them my money, I’ve given them my vote, told me that I am too stupid to control my own uterus,” she says. “We are voting Democrat.”

Democrats are hoping to convince more voters like Carpenter before Election Day.

-With reporting by Mini Racker/Washington

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Abigail Abrams/Eastpointe, Mich. at abigail.abrams@time.com