There was every reason to expect a close election.
Instead, Tuesday’s resounding victory for abortion rights supporters in Kansas offered some of the most concrete evidence yet that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has shifted the political landscape. The victory, by a 59-41 margin in a Republican stronghold, suggests Democrats will be the energized party on an issue where Republicans have usually had an enthusiasm advantage.
The Kansas vote implies that around 65 percent of voters nationwide would reject a similar initiative to roll back abortion rights, including in more than 40 of the 50 states (a few states on each side are very close to 50-50). This is a rough estimate, based on how demographic characteristics predicted the results of recent abortion referendums. But it is an evidence-based way of arriving at a fairly obvious conclusion: If abortion rights wins 59 percent support in Kansas, it’s doing even better than that nationwide.
It’s a tally that’s in line with recent national surveys that showed greater support for legal abortion after the court’s decision. And the high turnout, especially among Democrats, confirms that abortion is not just some wedge issue of importance to political activists. The stakes of abortion policy have become high enough that it can drive a high midterm-like turnout on its own.
None of this proves that the issue will help Democrats in the midterm elections. And there are limits to what can be gleaned from the Kansas data. But the lopsided margin makes one thing clear: The political winds are now at the backs of abortion rights supporters.
A surprisingly decisive outcome
There was not much public polling in the run-up to the Kansas election, but the best available data suggested that voters would probably split fairly evenly on abortion.
In a Times compilation of national polling published this spring, 48 percent of Kansas voters said they thought abortion should be mostly legal compared with 47 percent who thought it should be mostly illegal. Similarly, the Cooperative Election Study in 2020 found that the state’s registered voters were evenly split on whether abortion should be legal.
The results of similar recent referendums in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia also pointed towards a close race in Kansas — perhaps even one in which a “no” vote to preserve abortion rights would have the edge.
As with the Kansas vote, a “yes” vote in each of those four states’ initiatives would have amended a state constitution to allow significant restrictions on abortion rights or funding for abortion. In contrast with Kansas, the initiatives passed in all four states, including a 24-point victory in Louisiana in 2020. But support for abortion rights outpaced support for Democratic presidential candidates in relatively white areas across all four states, especially in less religious areas outside the Deep South.
It’s a pattern that suggests abortion rights would have much greater support than Joe Biden did as a candidate in a relatively white state like Kansas — perhaps even enough to make abortion rights favored to survive.
It may seem surprising that abortion supporters would even have a chance in Kansas, given the state’s long tradition of voting for Republicans. But Kansas is more reliably Republican than it is conservative. The state has an above-average number of college graduates, a group that has swung toward Democrats in recent years.
Kansas voted for Donald J. Trump by around 15 percentage points in 2020, enough to make it pretty safely Republican. Yet it’s not quite off the board for Democrats. Republicans have learned this the hard way; look no further than the 2018 Democratic victory in the governor’s race.
Even so, a landslide victory for abortion rights in Kansas did not appear to be a probable outcome, whether based on the polls or the recent initiatives. The most likely explanations for the surprise: Voters may be more supportive of abortion rights in the aftermath of the overturning of Roe (as national polls imply); they may be more cautious about eliminating abortion rights now that there are real policy consequences to these initiatives; abortion rights supporters may be more energized to go to the polls.
Abortion rights supporters may not always find it so easy to advance their cause. They were defending the status quo in Kansas; Elsewhere, they will be trying to overturn abortion bans.
Whatever the explanation, if abortion supporters could fare as well as they did in Kansas, they would have a good chance to defend abortion rights almost anywhere in the country. The state may not be as conservative as Alabama, but it is much more conservative than the nation as a whole — and the result was not close. There are only seven states — in the Deep South and the Mountain West — where abortion rights supporters would be expected to fail in a hypothetically similar initiative.
A shift in turnout
If there’s any rule about partisan turnout in American politics, it’s that registered Republicans turn out at higher rates than registered Democrats.
While the Kansas figures are still preliminary, it appears that registered Democrats were more likely to vote than registered Republicans.
Overall, 276,000 voters participated in the Democratic primary, which was held on Tuesday as well, compared with 451,000 who voted in the Republican primary. The Democratic tally amounted to 56 percent of the number of registered Democrats in the state, while the number of Republican primary voters was 53 percent of the number of registered Republicans. (Unaffiliated voters are the second-largest group in Kansas.)
In Johnson County, outside Kansas City, 67 percent of registered Democrats turned outcompared with 60 percent of registered Republicans.
This is a rare feat for Democrats in a high-turnout election. In nearby Iowa, where historical turnout data is easily accessible, turnout among registered Democrats in a general election has never eclipsed turnout among registered Republicans in at least 40 years.
The superior Democratic turnout helps explain why the result was less favorable for abortion opponents than expected. And it confirms that Democrats are now far more energized on the abortion issue, reversing a pattern from recent elections. It may even raise Democrats’ hopes that they could defy the longstanding tendency for the president’s party to have poor turnout in midterm elections.
For Republicans, the turnout figures may offer a modest silver lining. They might reasonably hope that turnout will be more favorable in the midterms in November, when abortion won’t be the only issue on the ballot and Republicans will have many more reasons to vote — including control of Congress.