See the 2022 Best Countries rankings »

The 2022 Best Countries rankings are live »See who's No. 1

‘Pink Wave’ Poised to Upend Republican Midterm Prospects

Republicans have been predicting a midterm red wave. But voter registration is indicating something different: women turning out in high numbers driven largely by the June abortion rights ruling.

The Rise of the Pink Wave

Polling is missing a recent surge of interest and outrage among female voters, experts and women's advocates say. And the result could be another 'year of the woman' that will elevate the powerful grassroots voter force.(KRISTON JAE BETHEL/AFP via Getty Images)

In Georgia, 6 out of 10 requests for early ballots for the November midterms have come from women. In Michigan, women have out-registered men by more than 8 percentage points since the Supreme Court decision undoing guaranteed abortion rights – and a referendum to enshrine abortion rights in state law garnered nearly 800,000 signatures, a record for any kind of referendum in the state. In Wisconsin, 59% of mail ballot requests for the November elections have come from female voters – a notable hike from the 53% of mail ballots that were requested by Badger State women in 2020.

Republicans have been predicting a red wave since last year, counting on history, midterm elections fundamentals and a Democratic president with uncomfortably high disapproval ratings to propel them to solid majorities in the House and Senate.

But voter registration and ballot request data is indicating something quite different: a pink wave, with women turning out in unexpectedly high numbers, driven largely by the June abortion rights ruling Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.

The impact of heightened interest among female voters is not certain. While women are more likely to vote Democratic and to favor abortion rights more than men – and polling shows it is a more important issue among female voters than male voters – women are not a political monolith.

Further, the key races for the Senate and House are excruciatingly close, and Republicans have time-tested reasons to believe they will ultimately prevail in those contests.

But the head-to-head polling on individual races is missing a recent surge of interest and outrage among female voters, experts and women's advocates say. And the result could be another "year of the woman" that will elevate women as a powerful grassroots voter force.

"I think we will see a moment where women as a voting block may be able to come together and transcend some aspects of the polls – to say, 'no, this is too much,'" says Rachel O'Leary Carmona, executive director of the Women's March, which is preparing for a series of simultaneous marches across the country Oct. 8.

Democrats are indeed leading in many battleground gubernatorial and Senate races, but the leads are almost all in the margin of error, meaning they are all essentially dead heats. And despite the narrow Democratic advantages, election history gives the GOP an edge, since the party in power in the White House tends to lose seats in the midterms, and President Joe Biden's approval ratings – while improving – are still low.

But those polls do not take into account some dramatic shifts in recent months on who is registering to vote and voting early, says Tom Bonier, a Democratic strategist and CEO of TargetSmart, a firm that analyzes voter and consumer data to project the actual demographics of the voting electorate.

Current polling tends to be weighted according to historical turnout trends. When polling is off – as it was in 2016 – it's often because pollsters did not expect an influx of new voters or changed turnout in a particular voter group. In 2016, for example, Democrat Hillary Clinton did not get the turnout she needed among traditional Democratic base voters in Detroit's Wayne County, contributing heavily to Donald Trump's Michigan win.

Newly registered female voters – whose numbers are not generally accounted for in current head-to-head polling – could be a defining factor this fall, experts say, and already have had an impact.

In an August special election for a House seat in upstate New York, Democrat Pat Ryan beat GOP contender Marc Molinaro by about 2 percentage points – despite polling that had the Republican as much as 8 percentage points ahead. Ryan made abortion rights a central issue of his campaign and said "choice was on the ballot" when he won.

In the five special elections for House seats since Dobbs, Democrats have overperformed the districts' partisan advantages by an average of 9 percentage points, according to an analysis by 538, an elections and polling site. Prior to Dobbs, Republicans did an average of 2 percentage points better in special elections this year.

Bonier's numbers show massive increases in female voter participation that could determine who wins competitive elections this fall – and who ends up running the country, he says.

"People were looking at this year, and a lot of us were assuming it was going to be a red wave election," Bonier says. But "the electorate has changed since June 24," when the Dobbs decision was handed down, "and it's continuing to change," he says.

Political Cartoons

TargetSmart looked at 45 states where data was available and found that in 41 of those states women account for a higher share of new voters registered post-Dobbs than before the high court decision. And in the four states where that was not the case, women were either already registering at higher levels than men or the states have automatic voter registration programs, he says.

That could be pivotal in close races. In Ohio, home to a hotly contested Senate race between Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan and GOP opponent J.D. Vance, women have out-registered men by an 11 percentage point margin since the Dobbs ruling.

In Pennsylvania, where the next governor could decide abortion access in the state and where Democrats are hoping to pick up a Senate seat, women had a 12-percentage point edge over men in voter registrations since the Supreme Court ruling, TargetSmart found. Of those new voters, 62% are Democrats and 15% are Republicans, the group found.

A separate analysis by the election watchdog group Committee of 70 found that two-thirds of the post-Dobbs registrants are women.

In Wisconsin, where Democratic nominee for Senate Mandela Barnes is hoping to unseat two-term GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, women have out-registered men by more than 15 percentage points, TargetSmart found. Democrats make up more than 52% of those new voters compared to fewer than 17% of new voters registering as Republicans.

The trend was first identified in Kansas, where abortion rights advocates scored a massive upset victory by defeating an antiabortion referendum in August. In that red state, women accounted for 56% of ballots cast – the biggest gender gap in the state Bonier says he has ever seen. In 2020, female voters accounted for 53% of the turnout.

The numbers in Kansas should be interpreted cautiously, experts say, since the results indicate Republicans voted against the ballot measure as well. That doesn't mean they will then vote for Democratic candidates in the fall.

But the increase in female registered voters could help the state's imperiled Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, who is seeking reelection this fall in her ruby red state against the state’s Republican attorney general, Derek Schmidt.

"I think it's competitive," says Nathaniel Birkhead, a political science professor at Kansas State University. "I still think the odds are on Schmidt to win, but (Dobbs) has galvanized the Kansas electorate in a way it would not otherwise," he added.

Young Americans, too, have been registering at higher numbers this election season, says Abby Kiesa, deputy director of Tufts University's Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), which studies the youth vote. In 18 states, voter registration is already higher than in 2018, when voters 18-29 turned out at record rates for a midterm, she says.

More than half of those new registrants between June and September are women, she says. And while CIRCLE can't say for sure why more young people are registering, "the Dobbs decision is a big deal" to young voters, Kiesa says.

Analysts say it may be a big leap to predict Democratic successes just becuase of abortion, which tends to lag behind inflation and other economic issues voters cite as most important.

But just because abortion is not a voter's "top" issue doesn't mean it won't determine that individual's vote, advocates say. For example, a New York Time/Siena College poll ealrier this month found that "societal issues, such as abortion, guns, or democracy" were most important to 31% of voters, compared to the 49% who cited economic issuyes such as jobs and the cost of living.

But 9% of voters who said they trusted Republicans more on economic issues said they would vote for Democratic candidates anyway, the survey found.

Republicans in close races have tended to play down their Supreme Court win on abortion on the campaign trail. Yesli Vega, a GOP candidate for a House seat in Virginia, is adamantly anti-abortion. In a typical midterm election, Vega would have a very good chance of defeating the incumbent, Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger.

But Vega's recent TV ads don't mention abortion at all, instead casting her as a wife, mother and sheriff's deputy concerned about kitchen-table issues such as inflation.

Birkhead says that, while outrage often fades as the months pass, this issue – and the women responding to it politically – are not going away.

"This is not a scandal. This is not a bad war," Birkhread says. "This is something felt earnestly. And the memory will last longer."

Coronavirus Bulletin

Stay informed daily on the latest news and advice on COVID-19 from the editors at U.S. News & World Report.

Sign up to receive the latest updates from U.S News & World Report and our trusted partners and sponsors. By clicking submit, you are agreeing to our Terms and Conditions & Privacy Policy.

You May Also Like

The 10 Worst Presidents

Not all U.S. presidents are missed once they leave the White House.

Cartoons on President Donald Trump

Photos: Obama Behind the Scenes

A collection of moments during and after Barack Obama's presidency.

Photos: Who Supports Joe Biden?

The former vice president has become the Democratic front-runner with primary victories across the country.

Supreme Court to Weigh Voting Rights

An Alabama redistricting dispute will likely provide a major test of how the high court will treat the Voting Rights Act.

See More »

Recommended Articles