Women have turned to Democrats since the Dobbs decision

With about a month to go before the midterm elections, some Republican candidates across the country are scrambling to moderate their position on abortion. Supporting the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization – the Roe v. Wade and ended constitutional abortion rights — could be a winner in a Republican primary, but early signs are a general election is getting harder to win.

The conventional wisdom is that this is partly because women are more motivated to vote this election season thanks to the Supreme Court decision. However, conventional wisdom is not necessarily based on evidence. And while abortion is an increasingly important issue for women, there are signs that it’s electrifying some men, too.

If the Dobbs decision did motivate more women than men, then there is one metric that would likely reflect this change: the gender gap. The gender gap is calculated as the difference between the proportion of men and women who voted for a specific candidate or party. A higher proportion of women than men have voted for the Democrats in every midterm election since 1980, and the gap has been even larger in the last two midterm cycles.

The 2018 midterm elections are a good example. That year, according to Exit Polls, 59 percent of women — and just 47 percent of men — voted for Democrats, meaning the gender gap was historically wide at nearly 12 percentage points.

The gender gap in 2018 was historically wide

Percentage of women and men who have supported the winning party* in every midterm election since 1982, according to Exit Polls

Year winner party Women men gender gap
1982 democrat 59% 54% +5
1986 democrat 58 53 +5
1990 democrat 54 51 +3
1994 republican 47 57 -10
1998 republican 46 52 -6
2006 democrat 55 50 +5
2010 republican 49 55 -6
2014 republican 47 56 -7
2018 democrat 59 47 +12

Data for the 2002 election is not available.

* “Winning Party” refers to the party that won the popular vote in the House of Representatives.

Source: exit surveys

It will be difficult to close that gap, even if abortion is at the forefront of many voters’ minds. Our analysis of polls conducted between June and September suggests that women are strongly biased towards Democrats, while men are more likely to support Republicans. But in our survey average, the gender gap isn’t quite as wide as it was at this point in 2018.

At this point in 2018, the gender gap on generic ballots was wider

Average proportion of female and male voters who said they supported the Democratic or Republican nominee in an election, in polls from June through September of each year

gender democrat republican
Women 49.7% 34.2%
men 42.4 43.9
gap +7.3 -9.6
gender democrat republican
Women 47.6% 39.4%
men 42.1 46.7
gap +5.6 -7.3

Includes polls of likely and registered voters. September 2022 surveys as of Sept 24th, 2022.

Source: Polls

Of course, the size of the gender gap varies by survey. We looked at two Pew Research Center polls — one in August 2018 and one in August 2022 — and found that the gender gap for Democrats was slightly larger among registered voters compared to our 2022 average (6 points). was in the same place (5 points) in 2018, although it is in the same range. And it’s worth noting that Pew’s data says the gender gap in 2022 looks similar to the gap at the same point in 2018, as Democrats face more election headwinds that year.

“I expect that [Supreme Court] The ruling will make women — particularly Gen Z women — engage much more in the midterm elections than they otherwise would have done,” said Melissa Deckman, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit polling organization.

But the gender difference is a measure of a pretty specific thing: how women vote relative to men. And that can get complicated when it comes to abortion, because overall, men and women have very similar views on the subject. As we have already written, the question of whether someone supports or opposes abortion rights has much more to do with their understanding of gender roles than with their own gender. For example, it’s possible that if left-leaning men are also unusually motivated to show up, the gender gap might be smaller. A similar dynamic occurred in 2020 as men turned to President Joe Biden, resulting in a smaller gender gap compared to 2016.

So far, the evidence on how men are responding to the Dobbs ruling has been mixed. In recent months, polls have consistently found that rising abortion concerns are most dramatic among women, and reports of rising voter registration have focused on women. Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor at Rutgers University-Camden, said it makes sense because women — particularly women of childbearing age who support legal abortions — feel more personally threatened than men by the sudden loss of abortion rights.

But there were also reports of higher than average voter registration among young men. An analysis of a series of polls by nonpartisan firm PerryUndem provided to FiveThirtyEight before and after the Dobbs ruling found that men of childbearing age were more likely to prioritize “safe and legal abortion” as a voting issue. In our survey averages, we found that the gender gap widened for both Democrats and Republicans from June through September, but the gap widened more for Republicans than for Democrats. The two gaps are skewed because men’s share of Democrat support has grown as much as women’s, meaning the full extent of the shift on that party’s side is not being seen. Meanwhile, the shift in the Republican gender gap shows otherwise: while the percentage of men who support Republicans hasn’t changed much since June, the percentage of women who support Republicans has declined, widening the gap.

The gender gap in generic ballots has widened since June

Difference between the proportion of female voters and the proportion of male voters who say they would support the Republican or Democratic congressional candidate in an election

Democratic candidate Republican candidate
June +5.3 -6.5
July +5.5 -7.3
August +4.8 -6.3
September +6.7 -9.1

Includes polls of likely and registered voters. September Polls 9-24-2022.

Source: Polls

Daniel Cassino, a professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said the Dobbs ruling could also cheer pro-choice opponents — but that’s less likely to show up as change in the polls because these people are an integral part are Republican-based and are more likely to vote in midterm elections. “This year to motivate them [anti-abortion voters] doesn’t really help Republicans because they’re already motivated,” he said.

He explained that reports of higher-than-average voter registration among women and young voters are another complicating factor, as pollsters find it difficult to explain unexpected increases in turnout. Young voters tend to have particularly low turnout, and pollsters sometimes rely on how demographic groups have behaved in the past when creating models to determine who is likely to vote and who is not. If young women are unusually motivated to vote this year, pollsters’ estimates could be thrown off balance.

And then there are all the other factors that influence how people vote. Inflation and the economy are other issues that still top voters’ priority lists, and that doesn’t bode well for Democrats. Though the economic outlook has improved in some respects in recent months, a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll found that just 26 percent of Americans said Democrats were managing the economy better, while 39 percent said Republicans would do a better job. (Another 20 percent said neither party would do a better job, and 12 percent said they would do an equally good job.)

So the question isn’t just whether abortion motivates women more than men—it’s a question of whether concerns about abortion are driving voters who may be skeptical of the Democratic Party to vote for their candidates anyway. This group includes both men and women, and their choices will do much to determine how wide or narrow the gender gap will be.

Mary Radcliffe and Cooper Burton contributed to the research.