It's happening: Abortion rights and the threat to democracy are reshaping the midterms

No, one special election victory doesn't prove anything — but it sure feels like the political winds have shifted

Published August 25, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Patrick Ryan, Democratic candidate for the New York 19th Congressional district, speaks during the special election candidate forum at the Roscoe Beer Co. in Roscoe, N.Y. on Thursday, August 18, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Patrick Ryan, Democratic candidate for the New York 19th Congressional district, speaks during the special election candidate forum at the Roscoe Beer Co. in Roscoe, N.Y. on Thursday, August 18, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

A bellwether New York primary Tuesday confirms what polls in the last week have been telling us: The cup of American democracy, which many advocates have long seen as half-empty, may actually be half-full. Americans now seem ready to take their twin desires to preserve democracy and abortion rights to the polls in November. 

In a closely watched swing district north and west of New York City, Democrat Pat Ryan defeated Republican Marc Molinaro, 52% to 48%. In late campaigning Ryan's message was largely focused on protecting abortion rights and the need to counteract threats to American democracy. 

Ryan's victory was presaged by polls released earlier this week. This apparent good news arrives against the backdrop of  long-running concerns about the public's commitment to democratic norms and values.

A 2016 study found that when Americans were asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 how "essential" it was for them "to live in a democracy," 72% of people born before World War II responded with 10, the highest value. But among people born since 1980, fewer than one in three expressed a similar belief about the importance of democracy.

Another study published in 2020 by political scientists Matthew Graham and Milan Svoloik found that only 3.5% of voters would "realistically punish violations of democratic principles" if candidates they otherwise supported did something destructive of those principles.

A December 2021 article in Vox explained that "the politics of saving democracy look like a sped-up version of the politics of climate change. In theory, everyone… knows it's important. In practice, the threat feels remote and abstract — far enough removed from [people's] everyday concerns that they aren't willing to change their behavior to avert looming catastrophe."

But new polling suggests that Americans may be more aware of the threat to democracy, and more concerned about it, than those earlier bleak assessments suggest. 

An NBC News poll, conducted Aug. 12 to 16, asked for the first time about threats to democracy on the list of issues facing the country. It found that 21% of registered voters ranked those threats as the most important issue facing the nation today, five points higher than the second-ranked issue, the cost of living. 

When respondents were asked to choose their top two issues, threats to democracy tied with cost of living as the leading concern for 29% of respondents, followed by jobs and the economy at 28%.

Asked earlier this week about the poll results, even Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate, acknowledged that threats to democracy are "an important issue."

The NBC poll also found that 66% of the public thinks that Donald Trump bears responsibility for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. Furthermore, Americans believe that the investigations into Trump's involvement should continue, by a 57% to 40% margin, though there remain sharp partisan divides on this issue. 

This last statistic helps us understand the finding about the public's concern about threats to democracy, which appears directly related to Trump's attempts to end democracy, rather than his claims of ballot fraud. 

The House Jan. 6 committee's June and July hearings on Trump's attempts to overturn the 2020 election seem to have affected America's consciousness, and the steady drumbeat of publicity about the former president's legal troubles also seems to be registering with the American people.

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In addition to the select committee hearings and Trump's legal troubles, the Supreme Court's June decision overturning Roe v. Wade arrived as a wake-up call, demonstrating clearly what Americans have to lose if we abandon democracy and individual rights. 

That decision "lit a fire under people," in the words of former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. In early August, voters resoundingly defeated an anti-abortion amendment to the state constitution.

Of course one set of polls and one referendum in a heartland state do not prove that protecting democracy and rights will drive the vote in November. Fortunately, there are other polls in battleground state elections that suggest a national environment increasingly favorable to those who stand for rights and for free and fair elections. 

An Aug. 17 poll by Public Policy Polling found that more than 60% of Wisconsin voters expressed  "serious" or "very serious" concerns about Trump's "lies about an election he knew had lost." And 55% of Wisconsinites had concerns about Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican incumbent up for re-election this year, and his alleged efforts "to put fake elector documents from Wisconsin and Michigan into [Mike Pence's] hands" on Jan. 6.

In Arizona, according to an Aug. 18 Fox News poll, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly leads Republican election-denier Blake Masters by eight percentage points.

The same pattern showed up in an Aug. 21 Trafalgar Group poll in Pennsylvania's key Senate race, with Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman leading Dr. Mehmet Oz, by five points. Oz, an ally of Trump, has supported overturning Roe. Tuesday's victory by Ryan in upstate New York — where many experts believed the Republican had the advantage — reinforces the meaning of that poll.

Whatever the MAGA base does, one thing is becoming clear in 2022: Most Americans support abortion rights, want to keep democracy and reject election lies.

Another poll released on Aug. 22 by Suffolk University and the Reno Gazette-Journal shows that in Nevada, incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto's lead over Republican Adam Laxalt has grown from just three points in April to about seven points now. Laxalt has supported Trump's election falsehoods and called the Supreme Court's original Roe decision "a joke." 

All these polls occurred after the Aug. 8 FBI search of Trump's home and resort at Mar-a-Lago. As further evidence of the sharp partisan divide, a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted on Aug. 10 showed Republicans rallying around Trump, with support declining for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 opponent.

That could prove a temporary bounce or a lasting one, but either way, the message of the recent polling is this: Whichever way the 30% to 40% Republican MAGA base turns, the vast majority of Americans value and want to keep democracy, generally support abortion rights and dislike those who deny legitimate election results.

These findings give Attorney General Merrick Garland some room for maneuver as he pursues his investigations of Jan. 6 and Trump's potential crimes

They also suggest that, despite her primary loss in Wyoming, Rep. Liz Cheney may find a receptive audience for her new pro-democracy campaign, dubbed "The Great Task."

In launching that effort, Cheney said, "I'm going to be very focused on working to ensure that we do everything we can not to elect election deniers. We've got election deniers that have been nominated for really important positions all across the country. And I'm going to work against those people. I'm going to work to support their opponents."

The great task of preserving American democracy is not just the distinctive work of our generation. It has been with us all along. From the beginning, America's leaders have warned about democracy's fragility and tried to rally citizens to its cause.

In 1787, at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, a woman on the street in Philadelphia reportedly asked Benjamin Franklin what form of government the convention had created. He replied with a warning, "A Republic, if you can keep it."

These recent polls suggest that Americans' worries about democracy will propel many to vote in November, and to organize others to vote. Hope feeds action. For every one of us ready to take up the task that Franklin long ago set out, the cup of American democracy looks more than half-full.

By Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution." His opinion articles have appeared in USA Today, Slate, the Guardian, the Washington Post and elsewhere.

MORE FROM Austin Sarat

By Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

MORE FROM Dennis Aftergut

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2022 Midterms Abortion Analysis Democracy Democrats Elections Reproductive Rights Republicans