A few months ago, the former president Donald Trump accused the Republican party of speaking “very inarticulately” on abortion. And yet, for the GOP presidential frontrunner, inarticulateness seems to be a feature, not a bug, of his own approach to abortion.
Trump thinks he can run in 2024 as a “moderate” on abortion, Rolling Stone reported this week – even though he’s currently running ads in Iowa, a crucial state in the Republican primary, proclaiming himself “the most pro-life president ever”. It’s a title to which Trump has a legitimate claim: his three nominees to the supreme court not only handed the nation’s highest court a definitive conservative majority, but all three voted to overturn Roe v Wade in summer 2022.
That move handed the anti-abortion movement the victory of a lifetime, but Republicans have been paying for it ever since. They underperformed in both the 2022 midterms and the 2023 Virginia state elections, losses that have been widely credited to the party’s inability to figure out a path forward on abortion. Abortion rights advocates, meanwhile, won every abortion-related ballot measure of the last 18 months, even in red states. After Ohio, seemingly a conservative stronghold, voted to enshrine abortion rights in its state constitution earlier this month, abortion rights activists rushed to remind Democrats that “abortion is a winning issue” in 2024.
While Republicans have flailed over how to message on an apparently toxic issue, Trump has – in typical Trump fashion – flip-flopped on it with apparent ease. Shortly after the 2022 midterms, Trump blamed “the abortion issue” for Republicans’ poor performance. He has refused to say whether he supports a federal ban and called the decision by Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, to sign a six-week abortion ban a “terrible thing”.
But all the while, Trump continues to take credit for overturning Roe.
“I was able to kill Roe v Wade,” he bragged on social media in May.
Howard Schweber, a professor of American politics and political theory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that “Trump has what, in my experience of observing politics, seems like a nearly unique ability to maintain cognitive dissonance in ways that his supporters find untroubling.
“His supporters will say, ‘Oh, well, he really means that when he says’ – and then finish that sentence with whichever position they approve of. That’s the gamble that he’s taking,” he said.
Trump has not said what, if any, specific abortion policy he would support as president. DeSantis has said that he would support a 15-week national abortion ban, a position championed by the powerful anti-abortion group SBA Pro-Life America. Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, has said that she would sign an abortion ban as president, but doubts that Republicans could muster the votes in Congress.
Iowa has a reputation for conservative evangelicalism, but most Iowans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. By not letting himself get nailed down on a specific abortion policy, Trump might be approaching Iowa as though the presidential primary is already over, said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. (Which it very well be: Trump is polling far higher than any of his competitors, who have largely cratered.) In a general election, where voters are more likely to be less dogmatic, it can pay to be vague – particularly on a charged issue like abortion.
“Things that you might say a little more forcefully during the nomination process during the primaries, you back off a little bit when it comes time to time for the general election,” Hagle said. “And that’s been a strategy of candidates for decades.”
Republicans in Iowa have launched an effort to amend the state constitution and clarify that it does not protect abortion rights. In order for the amendment to show up on the ballot, the Republican-controlled state legislature would have to pass it before handing the measure to voters. That could backfire, increasing turnout among abortion rights supporters who oppose Trump.
“But then we’re also talking about turnout in the presidential year, which is high anyway,” Hagle said. “So if you lose turnout in a midterm year, that’s going to make more of a difference than in a presidential year.”
Most Americans oppose the overturning of Roe. But that doesn’t mean voters are all that motivated by it: numerous polls since Roe’s overturning have found that Democrats are highly energized by abortion, while Republicans are less so – a reversal of the status quo while Roe was the law of the land.
As long as Trump wins the primary, he’s in little danger of losing the conservative evangelicals who oppose abortion rights. While they may want him to be more forceful on the issue, it’s improbable that they would turn to a Democrat in response to Trump’s reticence.
“Sometimes the option is to not vote at all, but I can’t imagine that they would want to do that either,” Hagle said. “It does create a little heartburn on the part of the pro-life folks that supported him if all the sudden he’s taking a more moderating position, but he may see that that’s more appropriate given his electoral strategy.”
Even people who say that they would like to keep abortion “mostly legal” are not always that invested in doing so. A recent poll from the New York Times – which did not look at Iowa – found that, among voters who want abortion to be “mostly legal”, Biden led by only one point. Those voters are also twice as likely to say they plan to vote based on economic issues, rather than social issues like abortion.
Schweber, though, is convinced that there are would-be Trump voters who will defect solely based on their support of abortion.
“Women voters – particularly middle-class and upper-class, suburban women voters – do take abortion rights seriously,” he said. In 2016, Schweber said Republican women told him, “It doesn’t matter, they’re never going to overrule Roe.”
“That sense of security is obviously gone,” he added.