Debates show Republicans focused on economy and turning abortion back on Democrats

Political debates between opposing candidates ramped up this past week, and if you were hoping for substantive policy contrasts, you must not have watched a debate in the past few decades.

TV long ago turned debates into sound-bite-heavy posturing sessions, and so if you want to know what a candidate might do in office or get an accurate read on what they’ve done in the past, you’re better off reading about it.

Debates do still give voters a chance to assess each candidate’s personality, their communication skills, and to award style points to one or the other, and just get a feel for which ones they instinctively like or trust.

A person's hands on a podium at a political debate.
A political speaker at a debate. (Getty Images)

But much of the data yielded from these events is more useful for political junkies seeking to understand the dynamics of the race.

Like TV ads, debates tell us what each candidate and their campaign think voters want to hear. They estimate what they should say based on what they have learned from spending millions of dollars doing opinion surveys.

And so debates tell us what campaigns are learning about voters, rather than the other way around. Once the campaigns have figured out what the voters care about, candidates talk about those issues, often using platitudes and generalities.

It’s not just any voters, though. The other thing we sometimes learn from debates is which voters a campaign thinks it needs to attract to win the election. If a Democrat is talking about abortion a lot in the 2022 election, it’s probably because they have polling data that shows that many suburban women who have voted for Republicans in the past are turned off by the Supreme Court’s ruling that overturned the constitutional right to abortion in Roe vs. Wade.

If Republicans are talking about crime, they’re trying to take some of those same suburban women voters back.

Demonstrators hold signs reading: Abort the Court and Justice Matters.
Demonstrators hold signs during a rally to defend abortion access and codify Roe v. Wade into law, in Foley Square in New York City. (Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images)

Increasingly, the goal of both parties is to make voters more scared of the other side.

So, in light of that, what have we learned from the past week?

Republicans are laser-focused on the economy, inflation, crime and blaming President Biden and Democrats for all of that.

In a debate last Friday, Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Georgia, repeatedly linked Sen. Raphal Warnock, the Democratic incumbent, to President Biden.

“Senator Warnock … has not stood up to Biden. If he was standing up he wouldn’t have voted with him 96% of the time, which gave us an open border, which gave us high inflation, which gave us crime in the streets,” Walker said.

Walker is one of the worst candidates for Senate in years. His many flaws are the reason that polls of Georgia voters find Walker with several points less support than Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in that state.

But Walker’s focus on linking Warnock to Biden and the economy makes sense. A New York Times/Siena College poll released Monday showed that the economy and inflation were far and away the top topic on most voters' minds. A total of 26% of likely voters listed the economy as the “most important problem facing the country today.” Another 18% listed inflation and the cost of living.

The next closest issues were abortion, at 5%, and crime at 3%.

Herschel Walker stand behind a podium with a sign reading: Herschel for Senate.
Georgia Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker addresses the crowd during a campaign stop in Macon, Ga. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

On abortion, the debates over the last week really did reveal something: Democrats were put on the defensive on this issue that they have seen as one of their biggest assets this cycle.

Arizona gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, was the most glaring example of this. Democrats are increasingly worried that Hobbs, the former secretary of state, has proven to be a weak candidate. Hobbs has even refused to debate Republican candidate Kari Lake.

But during an appearance on CNN Sunday morning, just after Lake did an interview with the same network, TV reporter Dana Bash asked Hobbs five times whether she would “support any legal limits on abortion in Arizona.”

Hobbs would not answer the question, saying only that late-term abortions are “incredibly, extremely rare” and occur only if “there’s something that’s gone incredibly wrong in the pregnancy.”

“Politicians do not belong in that decision,” Hobbs said.

Other Democrats took the same approach when asked if they approved any limits on abortion. Warnock was asked the question, and simply said, “I trust women more than I trust politicians.”

In Ohio, Senate candidate Rep. Tim Ryan, who a decade ago was on the board of Democrats for Life — an anti-abortion group — said that “government has no place in this matter.”

Katie Hobbs.
Arizona Secretary of State and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs speaks at a press conference calling for abortion rights in Tucson. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Republicans have pounced on this in recent days and weeks. A spokesman for the Republican Governors Association tweeted that Hobbs’ answer amounted to support for “abortion up to the moment of birth.”

Democrats have done little to argue otherwise. On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this week, host Willie Geist asked White House official Keisha Lance Bottoms whether Biden believes there should be “abortion without limits.”

“If you look at the polling, that is an extreme position,” Geist said. Public surveys find broad support for keeping abortion legal in most cases, but when Americans are asked more specifically about how late in an abortion they would prefer abortions remain legal, support for abortion drops off somewhere in the second trimester.

Bottoms, like other Democrats, did not refute the idea that there should be no limits on abortion.

“What the president believes is that there should be a fundamental right for a woman to choose what to do with her own body,” Bottoms said.

For months over the summer and early fall, Democrats thought abortion and slowing inflation would help them avoid a wipeout in the fall election. They cited reports of massive increases in women registering to vote, and an Aug. 2 referendum in Kansas in which voters rejected a constitutional amendment to remove the right to an abortion.

Chris Murphy speaking into a hand-held microphone.
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“This is where the 2022 election will be won,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said after the Kansas vote.

And there is significant outrage over the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade. Republicans have found that the public is especially turned off by the many laws in GOP-controlled state legislatures that impose outright bans on all or most abortions, sometimes without even allowing for exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.

In Michigan — where voters will decide a constitutional amendment to establish protections for abortion — Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon showed deference to the will of voters.

“I am pro-life with exceptions for the life of the mother. But I understand that this is going to be decided by the people of the state of Michigan or by a judge,” Dixon said in a debate last week. “The governor doesn’t have the choice to go around a judge or a constitutional amendment.”

But Republicans smell an opportunity in the Democratic party’s apparent embrace of abortion without any limits. A poll by a Republican firm earlier this month of 1,000 voters found that 57% view “allowing abortions up until 9 months of pregnancy for any reason” as “more extreme” than “restricting abortions to only in cases of rape, incest, and when the life of the mother is in danger.” Only 29% said the latter is the more extreme of the two positions.

Gretchen Whitmer and Tudor Dixon stand behind podiums on a TV set before a debate.
Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left, and GOP gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon make notes before a debate. (Bryan Esler/Nexstar Media Group/WOOD-TV via AP)

The survey was not intended to gauge support for either position, but rather to discover which of the two extremes was viewed as “more extreme” by voters. Another 14% said they were not sure.

Conservative author Noah Rothman wrote this week that “Democrats pushed all their chips in on the notion that Republicans’ views on abortion are out of step with those of the American people … on the assumption that Democrats’ approach to the issue was unassailable.

“And that dubious assumption is being put to the test. In interview after interview, Democrats in contested races are neutralizing the GOP’s disadvantages on abortion by exposing their own views on the subject,” Rothman said.

The Democratic party’s refusal to outline any restrictions on abortion, Rothman wrote, is “transforming what it wants to be a referendum on abortion into a choice between two competing radicalisms.”