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Trump betting pro-lifers will continue to support him despite abortion views

Former President Trump tried to thread the needle on abortion on Monday — with apparently limited success.

But Trump, for once, appears to be playing a longer game with an eye on November’s election. He appears willing to take short-term pain, in the shape of criticism from anti-abortion voices, in the hope that his position will pay off with more moderate voters seven months from now.

Trump distanced himself from any suggestion of a national abortion ban in his Monday video statement, instead asserting that the issue should be left to the states. 

“This is all about the will of the people,” Trump said.

At the same time, the former president congratulated himself on being “responsible” for the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade in June 2022 — a decision that stripped away the constitutional right to abortion which had existed since 1973.

Trump laid the groundwork for the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe by nominating three conservative Supreme Court justices during his one term.

His failure to come out in favor of a national abortion ban drew fire from some anti-abortion groups and from his former vice president, Mike Pence — as well as from elected officials, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

Pence called the move a “slap in the face” to those “pro-life Americans” who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Graham said he “respectfully” disagreed with Trump’s position, arguing instead for a 15-week ban. Trump shot back that Graham was “doing a great disservice to the Republican Party and to our country.”

Meanwhile, the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America group said it was “deeply disappointed” by Trump’s stance and that the decision to leave individual states to decide the matter “cedes the national debate to the Democrats.”

In the bigger electoral picture, however, Trump is willing to weather some turbulence from the right now to preserve his electability in November’s general election.

In fact, despite Trump’s frequently aberrational, norm-busting tendencies, he is making a very conventional political gamble. 

His speech suggests he believes voters on the religious right who might be dissatisfied with his abortion stance have nowhere else to go, and that it is more important to shore up his standing with center-right and moderate voters who might be put off by an overly rigid anti-abortion position.

Trump, whose personal history has been all over the map on abortion, seems keenly aware of the potential dangers of the issue for his reelection bid.

The former president blamed the GOP’s underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterm elections in large part on the abortion issue. In a January 2023 social media post, he argued that the topic had been “poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions.”

In September last year, he branded it a “terrible mistake” for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — at the time seen as Trump’s most serious GOP primary challenger — to have signed a six-week abortion ban in the Sunshine State.

His Monday statement explicitly referred to electoral concerns on the topic. Noting he was in favor of exceptions to abortion bans in instances of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, he added: “You must follow your heart on this issue. But remember, you must also win elections to restore our culture and, in fact, to save our country.”

There is no real doubt that the most hard-line, anti-abortion positions make it harder to win a national election.

Last June, an NBC News poll marking the first anniversary of the overturning of Roe found 61 percent of all voters disapproving of the court’s move in striking down the earlier decision. Sixty-seven percent of female voters took that position. Among women between the ages of 18 and 49 years, almost 80 percent disapproved of Roe being overturned.

Similar patterns have been seen on statewide ballot measures and during the midterm elections. 

Last November, Ohio became the latest state where the abortion-rights side won an abortion-related ballot measure. Anti-abortion activists have failed to win a single one of such votes since Roe’s overturn, and they have lost even in conservative states like Kansas, Kentucky and Montana.

Meanwhile, some Democratic politicians have gained electorally from tying their fortunes to the abortion issue.

In 2022, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) had been a top GOP target. In the end, Whitmer coasted to reelection by 10 points on the same day as an abortion-related ballot measure in the Wolverine State was won by the abortion-rights side by 13 points.

The salience of the abortion issue has not faded. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in March found that 1 in 8 voters consider the topic to be the single most important one to determining their vote in November.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Democrats are trying to keep the focus on Trump’s role in striking down Roe.

A Biden statement soon after Trump’s Monday remarks stated that the former president had “made it clear once again today that he is — more than anyone in America — the person responsible for ending Roe v. Wade. He is — more than anyone in America — responsible for creating the cruelty and the chaos that has enveloped America since the Dobbs decision.”

Biden also insisted that congressional Republicans remained adamant about pursuing a national abortion ban and claimed that, if such a bill were passed, “Trump will sign it into law” if he became president again.

Trump does not want abortion to be a central issue in the election at all, given that other topics benefit the GOP far more. 

Time will tell whether his effort to neutralize the topic can meet with any success.

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