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Abortion Politics in 2024

Originally published by David Leonhardt for the New York Times

No American president has done as much to restrict abortion as Donald Trump. When he was running in 2016, he promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, and his three nominees helped do precisely that in the 2022 Dobbs decision. Twenty-one states have since enacted tight restrictions. Yesterday, Arizona’s highest court reinstated an 1864 law that bans nearly all abortions.

These laws have proven to be unpopular. When abortion access has appeared on the ballot since 2022, it has consistently won, even in red states like Kansas, Kentucky and Montana. A Wall Street Journal poll last month found that abortion stood out from immigration, inflation and foreign wars as the only major issue on which most voters trusted President Biden more than Trump.

All of this helps explains why Trump has tried to reduce his vulnerability on the issue — and why the Biden campaign is already running advertisements about abortion. “Donald Trump did this,” reads the onscreen text at the end of an ad released this week. It focuses on a Texas woman who nearly died during a miscarriage after a hospital refused to treat her.

Trump released his own video this week, meant to serve as his defining statement on the issue. He said that states should be free to set their own laws, which is the post-Dobbs status quo. In so doing, he tried to distance himself from his past support for a federal ban.

This back-and-forth will be a theme of the 2024 campaign. Democrats will try to focus voters on abortion, while many Republicans will try to shift attention elsewhere. Today’s newsletter offers four key points to help you make sense of the debate.

1. The politics of abortion have changed.

Before Dobbs, polls suggested that the issue didn’t offer a big political advantage to either party. Most voters favored both significant access to abortion and significant restrictions, which put them to the left of Republican politicians and to the right of Democratic politicians.

But Dobbs — and the reality of statewide bans, as opposed to the mere prospect of them — altered public opinion. Gallup’s polls suggest that almost 10 percent of Americans on net switched from an anti-abortion position to a position favoring abortion access:

2. Democrats still have a challenge: salience.

In the 2022 midterms, several high-profile Democratic candidates highlighted their Republican opponents’ role in restricting abortion access. Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Beto O’Rourke in Texas were among them. So was Nan Whaley, the Democratic candidate for governor in Ohio. “We think it is the issue,” Whaley said.

It wasn’t. These candidates all lost by substantial margins. Nationwide, not a single Republican governor or senator has lost a re-election bid since the Dobbs decision. In House elections, the decision may have played a decisive role in a small number of races.

How could this be? In today’s polarized atmosphere, most voters have already made up their minds. “There’s no one issue in this day and age that can be a silver bullet,” Danielle Deiseroth, executive director of Data for Progress, a left-leaning research firm, told me.

If anything, Democrats may have a harder time focusing attention on abortion in a presidential election, when a larger portion of the electorate doesn’t follow politics closely and prioritizes pocketbook issues. Some of these voters are Black and Hispanic working-class Americans who tend to care less about abortion policy than white voters, Rachel Cohen of Vox has written.

3. Trump’s has his own problem: suburban swing voters.

Democrats who tried to run on abortion in the 2022 midterms were trying to oust incumbent Republicans. Biden has an easier job this year: He’s trying to reassemble a winning coalition.

His 2020 coalition included many college graduates — and women — in metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta and Phoenix, who allowed him to win swing states. Abortion access is popular with these voters, Deiseroth notes, especially when framed in terms of freedom and government overreach.

A recent poll found that only about one in four independents blame Trump for recent abortion bans. Biden hopes to increase that share — and win back people who voted for him four years ago.

4. Trump hopes voters ignore the past.

Trump’s latest position on the issue is a middle ground for Republicans, in favor of Dobbs but implicitly against a new federal law restricting abortion. This stance is meant to suggest that voting for him won’t lead to new laws forbidding abortion. That may be true (if he were to veto a Republican-passed federal ban, which he didn’t promise in his video). Yet it also ignores some important facts.

As president again, Trump could appoint dozens more federal judges who would interpret existing laws to reduce access. And Trump is effectively asking voters to ignore his first-term record. He remains arguably the most important opponent of abortion access in American history.

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