WASHINGTON — The fallout from the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision continued last week in Ohio, where voters defeated a plan that would have made it more difficult to change the state constitution with an amendment aimed at securing abortion rights on the ballot this fall.
For years abortion has been thought of as a bitterly partisan issue, but the Ohio vote is the latest example of how the issue seems to defy the partisan 50/50, red/blue lens that defines most everything in American politics in 2023. In state after state, initiative after initiative, voters seem to be coming down on the side of abortion rights — and the data suggest one big driver of those outcomes might be suburban Republicans.
The vote last week in Ohio showed how much abortion floats above the default partisan understanding of the state.
The vote, that essentially will allow the state to make abortion a constitutional right with a simple majority, didn’t just win on Tuesday — it won going away, by 14 points. And that is in a state that has gone through a decidedly red shift in the past few years.
Former President Donald Trump won the state by 8 points in 2016 and 2020. And last year, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine was re-elected by a 25-point margin and Republican Sen. JD Vance captured his seat by a comfortable 6 percentage points.
How does one account for that result last week? Well, it turns out not all Republicans feel the same about abortion. A June NBC News Poll showed how different the party’s MAGA and non-MAGA factions are on the issue.
Overall, Republicans are pleased the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, with 66% of GOP primary voters saying they approved of the decision. But when you break those voters down into whether they consider themselves to be part of the MAGA movement, the numbers look very different. Among MAGA supporters, 80% say they approve of overturning Roe, but among non-MAGA voters, only 51% say they approve in a poll that reported a margin of sampling of plus or minus 4.38 percentage points.
And those MAGA/non-MAGA differences might be playing a big role in the metro areas of states when you look at how the abortion vote is playing out in them.
You can see that pattern in Ohio when you compare the maps for the 2020 presidential election and Tuesday’s vote. Biden counties around cities voted against changing the rules to amend the state constitution, but they were joined by suburban counties in the state that went for Trump.
In 2020, Joe Biden won only seven counties in the state, including the homes of Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo. The map from Tuesday shows those seven Biden counties all voted against changing the rules to amend the constitution by 60% or more, and in many cases, they were joined by the suburban counties around them — particularly Columbus, Cleveland and Toledo.
In total, 22 Ohio counties voted against amending the state constitution. All of them are around larger cities and college towns, and most of them are suburban and exurban counties that voted for Trump in 2020.
And Ohio isn’t alone in that pattern. Last year, six states had abortion measures on the ballot — three that aimed to codify or expand abortion rights and three that were designed to restrict them. In each case, the side that favored abortion won out. And in almost every state, there was a clear divide between urban/suburban areas and more rural ones.
Look at Kansas and the maps for the 2020 presidential race and the vote on an amendment to remove abortion as a right from the state constitution.
In 2020, Biden won only five counties around Kansas City, Topeka and Lawrence and Manhattan, the state’s two big college towns. The 2022 abortion vote map shows the same pattern in the “no” vote as Ohio, adding suburban counties and Wichita to Biden’s more urban collection of counties. In total, 19 counties voted no last year.
And Michigan followed a similar pattern with its 2020 presidential vote and the results from its referendum last year that made abortion a right in the state constitution.
In 2020, Biden won the state by carrying Detroit and the I-75 corridor heading north to Saginaw, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and college towns around Ann Arbor, Lansing and Marquette — 11 counties in all. Last year, the proposal to codify abortion rights won in all those counties, as well as in suburban counties around Detroit, Kalamazoo and Lansing. All told, 26 counties voted for the measure.
In U.S. politics, it can be hard to fully grasp the direction the country is moving. One poll or election can be an outlier. Different jurisdictions can feel very differently about a candidate or a topic.
But at this point, the numbers around abortion seem to tell a pretty clear story. It’s a long way until Election Day 2024, but right now, in state after state, two messages about abortion have emerged. First, voters are tuned in and turning out in favor of abortion rights. And second, the Democrats may have found an issue advantage in the suburbs.