Why abortion wins (and loses) elections in the United States

After celebrating last year’s overthrow of ‘Roe v. Wade,’ Republicans are now avoiding the topic so as not to hurt their chances ahead of the 2024 election

Iker Seisdedos
Lawmakers demonstrating in favor of abortion in front of the Capitol on April 19.
Lawmakers demonstrating in favor of abortion in front of the Capitol on April 19.J. Scott Applewhite (AP)

The buzzword in Washington’s Democratic circles is that “abortion wins elections.” It is also the formulation of a wish. It embodies the hope that last year’s Supreme Court decision to overthrow the historic 1973 ruling shielding abortion at the federal level will mobilize voters in next year’s presidential elections. And that it will do so as effectively as in the November midterms, where Republicans got a good scare, as well as at the votes on ballot measures over the right to decide in Kansas and Michigan and, more recently, in crucial votes in Wisconsin (for the state Supreme Court) and Chicago (for the mayor’s office).

It became clear that the issue is a priority for the reelection campaign of President Joe Biden and his running mate, Vice President Kamala Harris, as soon as their team released the video with which they launched the campaign on Tuesday. In it, the first images show the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021; these are immediately followed by scenes from a demonstration, with the Supreme Court building in the background, in which a woman holds a placard with the following message: “Abortion is health care.”

Even conservatives seem to be taking notice, as evidenced by the fact that it has become the most uncomfortable issue for the Republican hopefuls who have so far stepped forward. There are six, according to the last count, with former president Donald Trump at the helm and the incorporation this Wednesday of former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson.

In the party, which celebrated the Supreme Court ruling as a long-awaited victory, there is a widespread fear of scaring away the moderates and independents. That fear, however, isn’t stopping conservative state legislators across the country from advancing extreme policies. Because that is precisely what the ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade did: give states the ability to legislate on the subject.

At least 19 have launched initiatives to prohibit or severely restrict the protection that governed abortion at the federal level for half a century. The cases of Florida and North Dakota are the latest: their governors have just signed laws that make it illegal to terminate a pregnancy after the sixth week (in North Dakota, without even making exceptions for rape and incest). That limit amounts to a total ban, since most women do not yet know at that point that they are pregnant.

A spokesman for the Republican National Committee (RNC) acknowledged on Wednesday in a telephone interview that the party will not make a banner out of abortion for 2024. “For us, the important issues are: the economy, the rise in crime, the management of the border crisis, and, if you push me, international relations come first on the list,” he said. “I think the issue [of abortion] affected us in November, also because of the misinformation that the Democrats circulated about the Republican position on abortion. We don’t want to go against women’s rights, but to defend life.”

The RNC’s agenda supports abortion bans from the 15th week of pregnancy, given the unrest that the six-week ban is causing among various types of voters. The extent of the measure’s unpopularity seems to have been understood even by the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, who is considering joining the 2024 race in mid-May and is emerging as the only possible opponent, if a weak one right now, to Trump.

“I don’t know if you can say he’s realized he’s made a mistake, because he’s too arrogant for that,” says Nikki Fried, the only Democrat in DeSantis’ cabinet until the November election, when he swept the vote with an advantage of almost 20 points over his opponent, Charlie Crist. “What is clear is that he signed that law at night, behind closed doors and without fanfare, and has not brought it up again,” adds Fried, who was arrested last week along with the leader of the Democratic minority at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee for peacefully protesting against that measure.

Despite selling himself as a strongman who is unafraid of criticism, a relentless guy when it comes to imposing his convictions in his home state before continuing with the rest of the country (the unofficial slogan of his yet-to-be-launched presidential campaign is Make America Florida), DeSantis was certainly shy this time. Contrary to his custom, he only tweeted an image of the signing, which was held at an unspecified location.

The next day, he participated in an event at an evangelical university in Virginia, a rite of passage for any Republican candidate. Despite the propitiousness of the audience, he did not touch the subject. A prominent Republican donor, Thomas Peterffy, declared his intention to stop funding the governor for his “extremist” policies and said that DeSantis “seems to have lost some momentum.” From there, the image of DeSantis, who is trailing far behind Trump in the polls, has been in free fall, and he has stopped looking like someone capable of beating the former president.

Fire up the grassroots

Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood, an organization that brings together around half of the abortion clinics in the country, ventured this Wednesday in an interview that the Republican Party will try to repeat in 2024 what it did in last year’s legislative elections. “They will use abortion to inflame their bases and then they will remove it from their programs and delete it from their websites, because they know it makes them lose elections. But we are not going to allow it.”

McGill Johnson spoke to EL PAÍS on Tuesday, before Harris’ first rally after revealing that she is running again for vice president. It was an act in favor of abortion rights at the historic African-American Howard University in Washington. At the event, Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a landmark civic organization founded by American feminist icon Betty Friedan, warned: “Eight out of 10 Americans believe in the freedom to decide how they want to live. That includes half the Republicans. Extremist politicians are about to see what happens when they touch our rights.”

That fear would explain why Trump, who managed to appoint three conservative judges while in office with the express desire that they should overthrow Roe, has eliminated the subject from his very long rallies, in which not many issues are left untouched. Also why two other Republican candidates, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, have bent over backwards to avoid the question of what kind of ban they would seek if elected (prompted by a reporter, Scott finally vowed to sign the most restrictive legislation possible.)

In the case of DeSantis, his record leaves no room for doubt. Between 2013 and 2017, years in which he was a congressman in Washington, he voted at least nine times in favor of restrictive abortion laws, according to what this newspaper has calculated based on the records of the House of Representatives. And since he was governor, the limit in Florida has dropped twice in one year: first to 15 weeks and a few months later, to six.

“He, like other candidates, knows that such tough policies can be advantageous during the primaries, but quite poisonous when it comes to winning over moderate, independent, and undecided Republicans afterwards,” argues legal historian Mary Ziegler, author, among other books of reference on the subject, of the essay Dollars for Life, in which she shows how a change in campaign finance rules allowed anti-abortion groups to boost Trump and control the Supreme Court, controlled by a 6-3 conservative supermajority, which is unprecedented since the 1930s.

Ziegler agrees that the issue influences the ballot box, albeit with nuances. “It’s proven that abortion wins elections when it’s a straightforward consultation. It has been the case on the six occasions in which it has happened,” she notes. Several Republican-majority state legislatures are working to prevent advances in the protection of reproductive freedom from the popular vote. The most immediate case is that of Ohio: while the groups in favor of abortion are collecting signatures to put a vote on the ballot to decide a constitutional protection for abortion until 24 weeks of pregnancy, Republican legislators are rushing to approve a law that would increase from 50% to 60 % the percentage of votes necessary for an initiative of this type to be successful.

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