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Many midterm voters are concerned about abortion but inflation is the top issue

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Throughout this election season, we have been talking with voters about how they're going to make their choices. As voting wraps up tomorrow, We want to look back at two major issues that shaped this campaign - the higher costs of gas, food and rent and the fight over abortion after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. Joining me now, national correspondent Sarah McCammon, who covers abortion policy, and White House correspondent Asma Khalid, who's been reporting on the effects of inflation. Good morning to you both.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Let's start with the economy, Asma. So how has inflation affected the way people are thinking about their choices in these midterms?

KHALID: Well, our own polling here at NPR, in fact, leading up to these final days of the election has shown that inflation is the top issue for voters. You know, I've spent more than a year tracking this issue. And early on, it was clear to me that rising prices were a concern to all sorts of voters - Democrats, Republicans and independents. But who people blame for inflation - I will say that often splits across party lines. You know, Democrats say inflation is a worldwide issue, a result of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Republicans say that Democrats mishandled the economy and have spent too much money. It is important, though, to say that I've heard this from people at early voting sites that although the economy is the top issue, as we see in polling, it is not the only issue people are considering.

MARTIN: OK. So, Sarah, are they considering the issue of abortion?

MCCAMMON: Definitely in some groups of people more than others - female voters, for example. So for Democrats, this issue of abortion gave them an early lift. We saw women registering to vote in large numbers after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health decision this summer overturning Roe v Wade. We saw voters in Kansas reject a ballot initiative in August that was seen as unfriendly to abortion rights.

So Democrats and reproductive rights groups see this as a big opportunity and a critical moment for their issue. They've spent hundreds of millions of dollars on ads highlighting the post-Roe reality of abortion bans in more than a dozen states and more pending in court. People are traveling, being denied emergency care in some cases. And Democrats are warning about the prospect of more of this in states around the country. They point out that polls suggest a majority of Americans support abortion rights, albeit with some limitations, and did not want Roe overturned. So they think if they can get voters to turn out, it will be good for Democrats.

KHALID: And if I can just add here, you know, the impact of the Dobbs decision also varies from state to state. In Michigan, for example, there's actually a ballot initiative to enshrine reproductive rights in the state's constitution. And Democratic analysts told me that that has been a hugely energizing factor for Democratic voters. But broadly, in this past month, polls show that Republicans are more enthusiastic to vote. And that has affected the closing arguments from Democratic leaders. They've become kind of scattershot. You know, I was out traveling with President Biden this last week. And he mentioned abortion, but it was not his primary focus. He's been touting Democratic policies, specific bills that Democrats have passed and arguing that Republicans will make inflation worse if they take over Congress, that they would threaten programs like Medicare and Social Security.

MARTIN: OK. But, Sarah, I want to get back to something that you said just a moment ago. A majority of Americans actually support abortion rights. So as a result of that, how are Republicans framing this issue?

MCCAMMON: Well, some Republican candidates have been de-emphasizing the issue to some degree. For example, Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters toned down some of the language about abortion on his website. And he's emphasized his opposition to abortion later in pregnancy, which is more in line with public opinion. Most Americans support legal abortion in the first trimester. Most oppose it by the third, although the vast majority of abortions happen in the first trimester already, and later abortions very often are for medical reasons. But Republicans are pointing to that fact and the fact that most Americans support some limitations. They're trying to paint Democrats as extremists on the issue.

That said, Rachel, Republicans are somewhat on the defensive on this point. You know, they've gotten Roe overturned. People are seeing the impact of abortion bans, including stories like rape victims or people with medical emergencies being turned away in some cases.

MARTIN: Asma, what are - what do you hear from Republican voters in conversations you've had as they - as these people weigh both these issues, abortion and inflation?

KHALID: You know, I've been really interested to hear how both Republicans and independents are wrestling with these issues. And I asked a bunch of voters about this in Georgia, where the Senate race is incredibly competitive. One man I interviewed - his name is Dale Jordan (ph), voted for Republicans up and down the ballot, except in the Senate race. He told me he did not think the Republican candidate there was qualified, but he didn't like the Democrat candidate either. And so he voted for a third-party person.

DALE JORDAN: On abortion, I try to stay out of that debate for various reasons. But at the same time, it's the economy. I mean, you know, when I'm paying - going for a family of four going to the grocery store and it's almost $400 for groceries at times, that's not acceptable.

KHALID: You know, I spoke with other voters who said despite having some very real concerns about restrictions on abortion, that was not enough to convince them to vote for Democrats. And some were willing to cross party lines for the Senate race, bu not the governor's race, which, you know, I think is noteworthy because the GOP incumbent governor there in Georgia has already signed off on restrictions to abortion. So, you know, Rachel, in some ways, my takeaway here is that voters' motivations are multifaceted.

MARTIN: Yeah. Sarah, what races in particular are you watching, I mean, especially when you think about where the abortion debate is most focused?

MCCAMMON: So along with that ballot question that Asma mentioned in Michigan, I'm watching Kentucky, where abortion rights groups are trying to replicate what happened in Kansas in August when voters rejected a similar measure. Amendment 2 on the Kentucky ballot would spell out that the state constitution there includes no protections for abortion rights. Reproductive rights groups are trying to appeal to independent and persuadable voters there. I was in Louisville a few weeks ago, which is where I met Mike Seavert (ph). Now, he says he's a registered Republican. He thinks abortion is usually wrong and too often used as what he calls birth control. But he wants to make sure that the law does leave some room for things like medical emergencies. So I listened in as a door knocker from Planned Parenthood was talking with Seavert.

MIKE SEAVERT: I will put no because I believe...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes.

SEAVERT: ...If it's saving someone's life, absolutely...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, sir.

SEAVERT: ...As a law enforcement for several years, a firefighter for several years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, sir.

SEAVERT: But it's used inappropriately.

MCCAMMON: So Seavert is the kind of persuadable voter that both sides have really been targeting in a lot of these tight races, Rachel. Then I'm also watching states where the outcome of governor's races could determine access - places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Kansas, which all have Democratic governors currently and Republican legislatures. Also, North Carolina - there's no governor's race there. But Democrats fear that Republicans could gain a supermajority in the Statehouse, which would enable them to override their Democratic governor. And then don't forget about state Supreme Court justices, as well as attorneys general and local prosecutors who all have a lot of authority in this area, as well.

MARTIN: NPR's Sarah McCammon and NPR's Asma Khalid, thank you to you both.

KHALID: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF REDI HASA'S "DAJTI MOUNTAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.