Dobbs and the Sorting of America
by Casey Burgat
Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) may be right (well, at least about one part of one thing): the institution-shaking Supreme Court ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade might produce electoral ramifications that will be felt for years to come. More specifically, because of the Dobbs decision, Hawley predicts “we will see a major sorting out across the country that is already underway” as many voters will seek states that have adopted their preferred abortion law. Red states, that is, will get redder, blue states bluer, and the purple, toss-up states will swing conservative as liberal voters flee for abortion-friendly states. This, of course, would greatly tighten the Republican grip on the Electoral College since razor-thin results in only a handful swing states have determined our recent Oval Office occupants. How likely is this scenario?
Let’s start with the portion of this argument that is most likely to prove true: the ruling to kick abortion access laws back to the states will likely exacerbate the political sorting we’ve seen in recent decades. Now, it should be said that the political science literature has a bit of debate as to whether or not people move strictly to sort politically, especially since the ability to change zipcodes isn’t equally available to all. However, much research has shown that while movers may not explicitly choose destinations that fit their preferred ideologies, when they do migrate, they disproportionately pick locations based on certain characteristics—income, racial composition, population density—that correlate strongly with partisan preferences.
Over decades, these individual migration decisions can produce aggregate voting and political shifts. This ideological clustering creates party strongholds where the only meaningful election is the primary. The effects of political sorting are many. It decreases the already shrinking number of competitive federal elections; reduces the urgency for turnout because the outcome is a foregone conclusion; results in more extreme candidates who win by appealing to partisan primary voters; makes elected lawmakers less willing to engage in good-faith compromise once they come to D.C.; and pours even more fuel onto the fire of polarization.
And because it has both immediate personal and political impacts, abortion access may exacerbate sorting in a way few other political issues can. It is one of the rare high-salience and high-intensity issues that singularly affects vote turnout and choice. As states begin to adopt new abortion laws in response to the ruling, the differences in state law will become a factor—sometimes the deciding factor—in their choice of where to call home.
Whether or not states tighten, loosen, or maintain the pre-Roe status quo will now be a consideration for many personal or family relocations; how attractive certain universities are to students (especially young women); and even what and how many jobs are available to those seeking greener pastures (more on this in a bit).
And while Hawley is likely correct on the effects on non-swing states, there are reasons to think he’s dead wrong on which party will ultimately benefit electorally from the ruling. Red and blue states will become more solidified, but purple states are not at all guaranteed to turn shades of red.
Hawley is betting that liberal voters will bail on purple states, thus delivering those states electorally to the Republicans. But this rests on the assumptions that voters will move to liberal states for the certainty of abortion access and/or that these purple states will react to Dobbs with more conservative abortion laws.
Maybe, maybe not. The unpopularity of the ruling—59% of respondents and 67% of women disagree with Roe’s reversal—may be enough to turn purple states blue because of voters blaming the GOP for turning back the clock to 1973. Democrats in these states will rightfully make codification of abortion-friendly laws the centerpiece of their voter outreach. That’s a strong message on an issue that affects the day-to-day lives of voters, and potentially enough to turn swing states in their direction.
Or, as the resounding denial of abortion restriction referendum in reliably red Kanas just taught us, traditionally conservative voters may just surprise us all by voting to maintain abortion access without changing zip codes.
At the same time, though, conservative interest groups and GOP-aligned mega-donors may pour resources into formerly sleepy state legislative races to get pro-life candidates elected in these purple states. This, in turn, could affect what abortion laws those states put on the books, which would then, affect how future elections play out on the issue. This, plus GOP-drawn districts in places like Ohio and Wisconsin could result in more restrictions on abortion despite voter sentiment suggesting the opposite. Too much is uncertain about reactions to a ruling that just dropped.
The economics also may work against Hawley here, which may undermine his pro-GOP sorting thesis. American corporations are already showing rare involvement in this hot-button political topic, almost all on the side of pro-choicers that may stem the Hawley tide. Huge companies understand the ruling affects their workers, consumers, and brand. Morally or economically, companies—think Tesla in Austin—will be forced to consider whether they a) want to operate in anti-choice states; b) can recruit enough workers they need to join them there; and c) are willing to accept the consequences on their brands and bottom lines for doing so. These corporate decisions will impact thousands of potential movers and voters for years to come.
They could even affect how far state and federal lawmakers are willing to go on their abortion policies in states because they know: jobs equal votes; business-related policies affect political donations; and big corporations can have a disproportionate impact on an state’s economy. They want these businesses to call their state home and their abortion policies may become the deciding factor in their decisions to headquarter or expand in the state.
Electorally speaking, Hawley may be half right. The Dobbs decision will absolutely accelerate our trend of political and geographic sorting, but it’s far from certain that the GOP will be the long-term political benefactor. We simply don’t know how voters and state legislatures will respond to make any evidence-backed predictions for 2022 or 2024, let alone for decades down the line.
Casey Burgat is a political scientist and director of legislative affairs at the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University.