Abortion May Tip Opinion Polls, But it’s Not Sinking Brian Kemp’s Lead

In May 2019, less than four months after taking office, GOP Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp followed through on his campaign promise to sign a law that declared a fetus with a detectable heartbeat a “natural person” and “human being” and banned most abortions in the state after about six weeks of pregnancy. He likely wouldn’t have anticipated at the time that this law, which was immediately slapped down by a pair of Roe-era courts, would reemerge as a reelection-year issue. 

But last month, in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision that freed states to place significant restrictions on abortion for the first time in decades, a federal court ruled Kemp’s “heartbeat law” could take effect. Five months before Kemp’s highly anticipated November rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams, the politician and get-out-the-vote activist widely credited with leading the charge to turn Georgia from solid red to purple over the last few cycles, the state of Georgia’s abortion access has flipped completely on its head.

Electorally, this seems to matter less than you might think.

In the months since Dobbs, the smart money has been that the national political repercussions play in favor of the Democrats—a hypothesis supported first by a swing in the generic congressional ballot that followed the court’s decision and then by a ballot referendum in solid-red Kansas in which voters overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to the state constitution to permit the legislature to pass new abortion restrictions.

In Georgia, public sentiment about abortion access was, until recently, pretty much split: Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study reported that 48 percent of Georgians thought abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 49 percent believed it should be illegal in all or most cases. But the data shows a significant shift since then in favor of legal abortion: In a poll last month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 42 percent of respondents said a candidate’s support for abortion access would make them more likely to support them, compared to only 26 percent who said they’d be more likely to support a candidate who promised to limit abortion access.

Even many Republican experts in the Peach State acknowledge the issue doesn’t favor their side these days. But for many Georgians, they argue, supporting abortion access is one thing, but riding that support into the voting booth to pull the lever for a Democrat is another: Abortion simply isn’t the deciding factor for enough people who would otherwise vote Republican to matter.

“Any polling will show you that Democrats in Georgia have an advantage if you look at abortion as a stand-alone issue,” GOP consultant Brian Robinson, a onetime aide to former Gov. Nathan Deal, told The Dispatch. But, Robinson added, “Republican have an advantage on immigration, gas, crime, and Biden. Georgia voters know about Dobbs and the heartbeat law, and Republicans running statewide have seen their leads hold steady.”

It’s easy to see that argument holding water in the marquee Kemp/Abrams matchup, where FiveThirtyEight’s polling average has shown Kemp holding a rocksteady lead of around 5.5 points over Abrams for the past five months.

The candidates themselves seem to tacitly acknowledge this dynamic, too. Since the heartbeat law went into effect, Abrams has sometimes tried to use abortion politics as a way to gain an edge on economic issues, as when she suggested to CNN earlier this summer that an abortion-unfriendly Georgia might be less attractive to business investment. She’s even made explicit pleas to economy-focused voters to care more about the issue: “Georgia is part of a nation that faces economic vicissitudes—things go up, things go down,” she said at a press conference last month. “But this law is permanent.”

When Abrams has gone negative in ads, she’s tended to focus on the abortion issue. “It’s an attack on the women of Georgia,” a woman says into the camera in one spot. “The only way to stop this attack on the women of Georgia is to stop Brian Kemp.”

Kemp and his allies are skeptical this will move the needle. After all, they argue, it’s not exactly news to voters that Kemp is pro-life. The heartbeat bill was a campaign promise the first time around, and he still beat Abrams then. 

 “When you’re talking about the heartbeat bill specifically, that was the governor’s first foray into the national spotlight as a sitting governor,” Kemp press secretary Tate Mitchell told The Dispatch. “People know Brian Kemp is a pro-life governor, and they’ve also seen him champion a host of other pro-life policies like adoption reform, foster care reform, and ending human trafficking.” 

Mitchell also suggested that other issues might loom larger for Georgians when they go to vote this November: “Georgians are getting up and going to the gas pump every day, going to the grocery store every day. They’re worried about being able to make ends meet in the current economic crisis.”

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