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Will Abortion Defeat Donald Trump in 2024?
The polls show that Trump is less vulnerable than other GOPers, but there is a path to victory.
In the wake of another excellent election night, some Democrats have begun describing the optimal strategy for 2024 as “Dobbs and democracy.” In other words, use the threat that Donald Trump poses to abortion rights and democracy against him. On paper, this idea makes a lot of sense. Focusing on abortion rights and democracy worked in 2022 and 2023. Despite lower approval ratings for Biden and widespread dissatisfaction with the economy, Democrats secured notable victories. Considering this success, there lies a valid question: why wouldn’t this strategy continue to be effective in 2024?
Well, things are always a little more complicated in a Presidential election…, particularly in a Presidential election against Trump.
Many Democrats believe that abortion and democracy can be saviors in an otherwise brutal political environment. I am fascinated by this question. Today’s post will focus on the role of abortion in a campaign against Trump. In the coming weeks, I will look at whether voters care about democracy as a political value and how Democrats should talk about it. This will be an ongoing series. If you are not yet a Message Box subscriber, you can sign up here:
1. Abortion Will Be a Huge Issue in 2024
Anyone dismissing the significance of abortion in 2024 is ignoring reality. These abortion bans are not abstract concepts; tens of millions of Americans are directly impacted, and many more live in fear of them. These laws have far-reaching consequences for everyone.
While this may seem palpably obvious, I keep reading and hearing that abortion will stop being a major issue in American politics going forward. However, it won’t fade away politically. The way Democrats address abortion in the coming year will shape public perception, as voters cannot afford to stop considering this crucial issue.
2. Presidential Elections Are Different
Last week, I wrote about what the 2023 elections told us about 2024. One key point to consider is that the voter turnout in a Presidential election is significantly larger, and consequently, distinct from that of midterms and special elections. Take Ohio for example:
More than 3.8 million Ohioans voted in this week’s election. This massive turnout speaks to the galvanizing power of abortion as a political issue; still, it’s fewer than two-thirds of the total number of 2020 Ohio voters.
That dynamic will replicate itself all across the battleground states as millions of people who haven’t thought about politics in years re-enter the political fray.
Presidential elections are also very different from midterms in terms of how voters decide. Midterms are much more about party and policy. While the candidates do matter, people tend to vote for which party they want to be in charge of Congress. In 2022, the question became, would the majority be pro-choice or would they push abortion bans?
The American Presidency is unique among Western democracies. The President is not just the head of government; he or she is also the head of state. We are choosing someone to implement policies we like, represent the nation on the world stage, protect us from threats, domestic and foreign, and comfort us during national and personal tragedies. This is one reason why the person who wins the Presidency is not always the one with the more popular positions.
This is not to say that abortion will not be Trump’s downfall; it’s just that the strategy will need to be different than it was in 2022 or 2023.
4. Trump Poses Some Unique Challenges
Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is personally responsible for overturning Roe v. Wade. We know this because he brags about it all the time. If he is elected President, he will utilize every lever of power available to make it even harder to access an abortion all across the country. Reproductive freedom will turn into a nightmare in this country if Trump is elected. That reality should be a much bigger part of the campaign coverage.
However, focus groups and polls show that some voters don’t see Trump as being as anti-abortion as other Republicans. I would encourage everyone to listen to this episode of Sarah Longwell’s Focus Group Podcast, where she talked to Ohio voters who voted for Senator Sherrod Brown in 2018 and Trump in 2020 and likely voted for the abortion constitutional amendment on the ballot last week:
Because he is a thrice-married, wannabe playboy from New York City known for cheating on his wives, voters assume that Trump is personally pro-choice. Focus groups proactively bring up the idea that Trump has probably paid for multiple abortions.
In the New York Times/Siena poll, Biden leads Trump 49-40 on the issue of abortion, but 14 percent of those who trust Biden more are still planning to vote for Trump in 2024. A federal 15-week abortion ban is opposed by a margin of 50-43, but 19% of the people who strongly oppose such a law are still voting for Trump.
3. The Economy Still Matters
One of the undertones of the “Dobbs and democracy” strategy is that it comes at the expense of talking about the economy. President Biden has done so much and gotten so little credit for economic progress. There seems to be a real disconnect from the reality of the economy expressed in the numbers and how people perceive the economy in their personal lives. Improvements in the economy do not lead to improvements in Biden’s numbers or approval of the economy. This is a largely unprecedented phenomenon and extremely frustrating. So much so that some folks want to largely ignore the economy.
But that would be a mistake.
American politics has changed a lot since the “It’s the economy, stupid” era of the 1990’s, but it still matters a lot.
The polling shows that the economy is more important to voters than abortion rights. The New York Times poll asked voters which issues were more important when deciding who to vote for: “social issues such as abortion, guns, and democracy” or “economic issues such as jobs, taxes or the cost of living.” Registered voters chose economic issues 57-29. This is a 12-point increase since 2022, according to Times polling in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona.
This helps explain why Trump leads in the polling despite being on the wrong side of the most important political issue in a generation.
People were just as unhappy about the economy in 2022 (and inflation was a much bigger problem) and Democrats still won; why would 2024 be different?
In tough economic times, voters may express their anger by voting against the party in power during midterm elections, but voters don’t really think Congress is in charge of the economy. As unfair as it often feels to incumbent Presidents, the American hold the President accountable for their personal financial situations.
5. What Do We Do?
Abortion (and democracy) should undoubtedly be integral to the strategy. I am highlighting the challenges and distinctions because it's crucial to comprehend the unique dynamics of running against Trump in 2024, especially in the post-Dobbs era. Here are some suggestions on navigating these challenges and ensuring that Trump faces defeat, akin to other MAGA Republicans advocating for extreme abortion bans.
Hammer Voters with Trump’s Own Words About Abortion: The political media keeps telling us that Trump has been careful on the abortion issue because he’s been hesitant to publicly back the kinds of abortion bans supported by other Republicans. But that’s not the whole story. Trump is constantly touting his role in making abortion illegal. Along with Democratic campaigns, we all need to constantly remind voters of Trump's support for abortion bans by showing Trump in his own words. The Biden campaign X (Twitter) account has several great examples, including:
Early Abortion Ads: During Obama’s re-election campaign, our polling indicated that many voters were unaware of Mitt Romney’s endorsement of defunding Planned Parenthood. The revelation of his stance significantly swayed a considerable number of voters, particularly women, leading them to oppose him. The dynamics around Romney were similar to Trump, because Romney had been pro-choice as a Massachusetts Governor and therefore voters didn’t realize how conservative he actually was on issues of reproductive freedom. In early 2012, the campaign went up with a low-level targeted television and digital campaign. Something similar could be done this time around. No special effects or ominous voice overs—just Trump in his own words. Nothing more, nothing less.
Make a Federal Abortion Ban a Central Issue: With a Republican House and Senate, Trump will sign into law the Federal abortion ban enthusiastically supported by GOP Congressional leaders and his Evangelical Christian base. Trump will twist himself into a pretzel to avoid admitting it, but it is a very safe assumption. Following 2024, Trump won't be subject to voters’ scrutiny anymore, and I find it unlikely that he would purposefully alienate his support base. Democrats should talk about this every day. It’s critical that voters in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania— where abortion access is currently protected—understand the devastating consequences of the election.
Donald Trump is a deeply flawed candidate with incredibly unpopular positions—especially on abortion. For a variety of reasons, voters treat him differently than other politicians. We need campaign strategies that adjust to that reality—if we do, we will win and abortion will be a major reason why. But it’s clear that path will be more challenging than it was in the last couple of elections.