Abortion, not inflation, directly affected congressional voting in 2022

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that Americans are ‘pocketbook voters,’ views on abortion and the Supreme Court are more likely to sway voters today.

A new study that examined voting in the 2022 United States congressional elections shows that views on abortion were central to shifting votes in the midterm elections. Despite severe inflation and grave concerns about deteriorating economic conditions, economic perceptions did not change votes.

A parent holding a baby voting at a polling place.
Image: iStock/EvgeniyShkolenko

The study is conducted by Diana Mutz, Samuel A. Stouffer Professor of Political Science and Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, and Edward Mansfield, Hum Rosen Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts & Sciences. It is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and demonstrates why the role of the economy is easily misinterpreted in research on American elections. 

“Journalists frequently assert that Americans are “pocketbook voters,” relying on their economic self-interest in making voting decisions,” says study co-author Diana Mutz, director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics. “What we found, however, is that people’s views on abortion combined with the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization directly affected changes in vote choice between 2020 and 2022.”

Though Americans were widely aware of mounting inflation when they went to the polls in 2022, respondents’ attributions of responsibility for inflation were either starkly partisan or completely nonpartisan. Well over half of the representative national probability sample held either “neither party” or “both parties” responsible. This pattern blunted inflation’s potential impact as people either blamed the opposing party or did not assign responsibility to a single party.

Further, the study co-authors found that Americans who favored legal abortions were more likely to shift from voting for Republican candidates in 2020 to Democratic candidates in 2022, but the reverse was also true; those who opposed abortion became more likely to switch toward voting Republican. However, since a larger number of Americans supported abortion, the combination of these shifts ultimately improved the electoral prospects of Democratic candidates.

“What people tell you is “most important” in determining their vote is likely to be a reflection of their partisanship, rather than a source of change in their vote preferences,” conclude Mutz and Mansfield. “It could mean that people’s perceptions of the economy are less important than journalists typically imply in their coverage. As a result, lingering effects of the Dobbs decision and general distrust of the Supreme Court may be especially influential in 2024.” 

This story is by Meredith Rovine. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.