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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Estrich: What U.S. voters don’t know yet

By Susan Estrich
Published: May 18, 2024, 6:01am

The problem with early polls is just that. They are taken early, and they are a snapshot of what voters know and think at the time they are taken. Which may be wrong. Because most of the voters who decide elections — the so-called swing voters — pay about as much attention to politics as I do to baseball. Not spring training. Not even the regular season. I tune in for the playoffs, or maybe not even until the World Series.

Which helps explain the results in the latest New York Times/Siena College/Philadelphia Inquirer poll of battleground states, where nearly 1 in 5 voters blamed Joe Biden for the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe v. Wade. Some 3,380 registered voters were asked: “Who do you think is most responsible for the Supreme Court ending the constitutional right to an abortion: Joe Biden or Donald Trump?”

The “right” answer, the one everyone should know by November, is Trump. “I was able to kill Roe v. Wade,” he posted last year, and last month reiterated that he was “proudly the person responsible” for the court’s decision to overrule Roe and take away a woman’s constitutional right to reproductive freedom.

Among all registered voters, only 56 percent blame Trump, compared to some 17 percent who blamed Biden and 13 percent who didn’t know. That leaves some voters up for grabs, when better informed. “This group is a pickup opportunity for Democrats,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster told the New York Times. Celinda has been polling the abortion issue for decades. Referring to Trump, she says: “He has intentionally kept it vague. But when we show voters his statements in his own words, that is enough to persuade them.”

Trump has done everything he can to confuse the issue, including a public statement that the issue should be left to the states and conflicting positions on a federal ban on abortion. But there is no question that anyone who watches television will know by November that Trump delivered on his 2016 campaign promise to appoint a Supreme Court that would end a woman’s constitutional right to choice. And in the years since the landmark decision in Dobbs, whenever abortion rights has appeared on a ballot, the Democrats and the pro-choice majority have turned it into a winning issue.

That means more than the horse race numbers at this stage, which continue to show Biden lagging.

What will it take for Biden to turn those numbers around?

Trump’s hardcore base is with him, but what the abortion poll makes clear is the extent of the gap between those who are closely following this race and the swing voters who are not paying attention. With two debates on tap, one in June and one in September, that gap is sure to narrow.

In July 1988, my candidate left the convention with a 10-point lead over his Republican opponent, then-Vice President George Bush. The problem was that a majority of voters thought he wasn’t a liberal. He was. They didn’t know him. Presidential elections turn out to be pretty transparent. We assume everyone knows these two candidates because they have been around the block, but not everyone has been watching them closely. Eventually, that will be unavoidable. They will know that Trump is responsible for the end of abortion rights.