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News / Politics

Abortion is becoming the biggest weakness for Trump and the GOP

By Hadriana Lowenkron, Bloomberg News
Published: April 14, 2024, 5:39am

It’s perhaps the only hot-button issue on which Donald Trump plays defense. It has forced even MAGA acolyte Kari Lake to ask Democrats for help. And just last month, it lost the Republicans a state seat in otherwise ruby-red Alabama.

Such is the power of the politics around abortion.

Going into the 2024 presidential election, it’s threatening to undermine the GOP’s upper hand on immigration and the economy against the Democrats and Joe Biden. The issue again cast a pall around Republican strategy this week after Arizona’s top court said an 1864 law that criminalized nearly all abortions in the state can take effect.

That ruling came just a day after Trump attempted to solve his party’s messaging problem by proclaiming the matter should be left to the states: a move that brought backlash from Democrats as well as those in his own party advocating for a strict federal ban.

By Wednesday, the court’s move had pushed Trump — who has sought to portray himself as resilient in the face of a litany of criminal court cases — further on the backfoot.

Moments after landing in Georgia for a campaign fundraiser, he told reporters that the Arizona law went too far. “As you know its all about states’ rights,” he said. “That’ll be straightened out. And I’m sure the governor and everybody else are going to bring it back into reason.”

Campaign Ads

President Biden, meanwhile, is spending a chunk of his $30 million spring advertising budget to tout his abortion-rights agenda. “Donald Trump did this,” read the white words against a stark black background at the end of a 60-second video released this week, telling the story of a Texan woman who said she almost died when she was denied medical care to prevent infection after a miscarriage.

The ad is the latest sign that the Biden campaign is planning to squeeze every drop of momentum out of the drama around abortion rights, in an attempt to capitalize on the consistent success the issue has brought Democrats at the polls.

What’s harder to predict is how significant a factor it will be when voters show up on election day: While 73% of swing state voters said abortion is important in deciding who to vote for in November, according to a March Bloomberg News/Morning Consult poll, only about 7% said it’s the most important issue, above their opinions on the U.S. economy, as well as immigration and protecting democracy.

Still, “abortion remains political kryptonite, electoral kryptonite, for Republicans,” Democratic strategist Maria Cardona said. “The vast majority of Americans do not agree with the extremist Republican agenda on this.”

Red States

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022, at least 14 states have enforced total abortion bans. Seven others restrict the procedure in ways that would previously have been unconstitutional, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research organization that tracks state policy.

At the same time, ballot initiatives that seek to add abortion protections into state law will appear before voters in Maryland and New York this year, buoyed by the success of the eight states where similar contests have ended in wins for reproductive rights.

Florida could be next, after the state’s Supreme Court ruled Monday to allow a ballot initiative that will ask voters whether to enshrine abortion access in the state’s Constitution. Groups in several other states are working to follow suit.

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The successful initiatives are giving the Biden administration clear guidance on where to focus, especially as national data shows extreme abortion bans aren’t widely popular. On top of this week’s ad spend in Texas, campaign events that center around reproductive rights are regularly taking place in battleground states.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who is taking on a large role in the campaign’s abortion rights platform, is headed to Tucson, Arizona, on Friday to discuss the issue. The stop is part of her “Fight for Reproductive Freedoms” tour that has included events in Wisconsin, California, Georgia, Michigan and Minnesota.

“Polling consistently shows a majority of Americans support legal abortion in most/all cases, especially early in pregnancy,” said Landon Schnabel, assistant professor of Sociology at Cornell University, adding that in close races abortion could boost Democratic turnout. “There is no public majority for strict bans.”

GOP Messaging

By pledging to leave abortion policy up to individual states, Trump is resisting pressure from anti-abortion groups to agree on a federal abortion limit, with 15 weeks emerging among many of those groups — and some politicians — as a consensus that would bring voters on board.

That doesn’t do his party any favors, according to Syracuse University political science professor Shana Gadarian.

Trump’s position “allows for competitiveness of Democrats in states where these state bans are still in flux, and where Democrats have the potential to put constitutional amendments up for the voters to vote directly on,” Gadarian said. “That has been a story that’s been pretty successful so far for Democrats.”

While more Americans support access to abortion throughout a pregnancy than before Roe was overturned, the numbers shift along party lines and decrease with each trimester: Gallup data from May 2023 showed 69% of people think abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, compared with just 22% in the last three months.

The Arizona court ruling even sparked opposition from Lake — one of the contenders for vice president on Trump’s ticket. She called on Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs and the state legislature to come up with an “immediate common sense solution.”

A spokesman for the Biden-Harris campaign on Wednesday pointed to Trump’s transformation of the Supreme Court as being responsible for “the suffering and chaos happening right now.”

Abortion Cases

Since overturning Roe, the Supreme Court — where the former President appointed three judges and established a Conservative majority — has found itself repeatedly thrust into the abortion conversation.

This term, it will hear two abortion-related cases: one on whether to restrict the use of abortion pill Mifepristone; and one on whether to enforce state bans even when an emergency room doctor believes an abortion would preserve the mother’s health.

At the state level, reproductive rights have been equally prominent, after an Alabama Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos obtained via in vitro fertilisation can be considered people. IVF clinics in the state paused treatments, and the decision gave Alabama Representative Marilyn Lands a new campaign issue, helping her to flip a red district last month.

“Democrats definitely have a very, very strong set of messaging points that they can point to and remind people that the Court itself has become political in a way that we’ve never seen in our lifetime,” said Lisa Camooso Miller, a GOP strategist and former Republican National Committee communications director.

Echo Chamber

Camooso Miller pointed to the value of Trump surrogates to appeal on the issue to suburban women, a key demographic the party needs to win come November.

“People that are turned off by Donald Trump are going to continue to be turned off by Donald Trump,” she said. “But the stronger his echo chamber is about why he’s the right choice, the stronger his candidacy will be.”

In Arizona, the groups campaigning to get a ballot initiative that protects reproductive rights in front of voters have been both dismayed and motivated by this week’s ban.

“We were already seeing a lot of enthusiasm for signing the petition and making sure this qualified for the ballot,” said Cheryl Bruce, campaign manager for Arizona for Abortion Access. “Everybody on the campaign is feeling a lot of resolve.”

The groups are in the process of gathering signatures to support the measure: as of this month, about 500,000 have been collected; it aims to collect about 800,000 — double the requirement — by July.

“There’s an opening for the party in a lot of these states,” said Alexandra LaManna, a Democratic strategist and former Biden White House spokesperson on reproductive rights. “I don’t think it’s a magic bullet — but if anything could maybe be that, it’s abortion.”