Syndicated columnist Byron York: Trump obsession clouds midterm analysis

By Byron York

Remember when the conventional wisdom was that abortion would be a huge issue in the midterm elections? Then the election came, and a lot of data pointed to the fact that yes, abortion did indeed play a big role. But now, the subject most people are talking about is ... former President Donald Trump.

You think that's an exaggeration? Look at NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. A transcript shows the word "abortion" was mentioned all of three times, while the name "Trump" was mentioned 63 times. Then look at ABC's "This Week." The transcript shows "abortion" appeared once, while "Trump" appeared 41 times.

It is now common to hear or read someone blaming Trump for everything that went wrong for Republicans in the midterm elections. That's not an exaggeration, either. The New York Post editorial board published a piece headlined, "Don't believe Trump - this midterm miss is all because of him." A guest on "Meet the Press" declared, "This is unambiguous. This is Donald Trump's loss." Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland who has long been anti-Trump, declared the Republican underperformance was "Donald Trump's fault."

So what happened to abortion? In many postelection analyses, it has been entirely trumped by Trump. In one sense, that's not hard to understand. Some analysts have spent the last seven years obsessing about Trump. Why would they change now? And most substantially, yes, Trump certainly played a role in the elections and without a doubt bears a significant part of the blame for Republican losses. GOP voters and leaders will have to determine how much of a role, if any, they want Trump to play in future campaigns.

But it's still important to understand why the election turned out as it did. And that means looking at the abortion issue. First, it did, in fact, play a significant role, a greater role than some Republicans had predicted. Assessing voter information data, the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision "disproportionately motivated Democratic voters, first-time and younger voters, and women under age 50, both nationally and in key states." In states that had an abortion measure on the ballot, the numbers were even bigger. "About 4 in 10 voters across states with abortion on their ballot say overturning Roe had a major impact on their decision to turn out to vote," wrote Kaiser.

That was in line with what a few Democrats were saying before the election. The court's action, those Democrats said, would turbocharge the intensity behind the Democratic vote, motivating more Democrats and Democratic-leaners to vote in an election that in another year they might have skipped. When the court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was released on June 24, Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg noted, "the election radically changed almost immediately ... and it stayed changed all the way through Election Day." Rosenberg cited Democratic performance in special elections, voter registration and grass-roots fundraising as indicators that there was a new intensity behind the Democratic cause.

Many in the press initially agreed with that analysis. In late summer, there was a lot of talk about abortion becoming the top issue in the race. But then, in September, it seemed that economic concerns, most notably inflation, rose again to the top of voter concerns. Poll after poll showed inflation and the economy were the public's most important issues, with abortion trailing, sometimes far behind. That convinced many observers, including me, that the economy had reasserted itself as the dominant issue. Abortion would play a role, but it'd probably be around the margins.

Then there was the Trump-MAGA factor. In the campaign's final weeks, President Joe Biden tried hard to make the election about Trump and what Biden called "super mega MAGA Republicans." But from what we know now, the intensity fueled by the abortion decision kept rolling on. It's not like each factor was on a separate track. It appears concerns about abortion and the MAGA factor combined into a growing determination of many Democratic voters to make sure to vote, in large numbers, against Republican candidates. Those concerns outweighed inflation.

But in assessing the race, the abortion factor is different from the Trump factor or the economic factor or the new Republican determination to embrace mail-in voting or any other take-aways from the election. Overturning Roe was the result of decades of Republican and conservative activism, and for many years was the highest goal of a portion of the GOP base. It was a passionate Republican cause ages before Trump came down the escalator. Sending the abortion issue to the states to be worked out politically was part of that goal. With Dobbs, a large part of the Republican Party's conservative base got what it wanted. Now it will have to grapple with what that means electorally. It could mean losing elections in the future. But first, people have to understand why Republicans did so poorly in the most recent one.

© 2022, Universal

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