Will abortion be the issue that swings the 2024 US presidential election?

By Prudence Flowers | 31 January 2024
The Conversation

(Photo: Victoria Pickering / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Abortion is shaping up to be a central issue for both parties in the 2024 US presidential and Congressional elections.

Nearly two years ago, the US Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, finding there was no constitutional right to abortion and returning regulation to the states.

Since that decision (a case known as Dobbs v. Jackson), 14 states now ban abortion in almost all circumstances and ten have imposed restrictions, some of which have been blocked by the courts. One in three women of reproductive age now live in states that have either banned or restricted abortion.

Abortion remains legal and protected in 26 states, plus the District of Columbia.

For decades, abortion has been central to partisan politics in the United States. Republicans made opposition to abortion a core part of their identity and voter mobilisation strategies. They pumped out so-called “messaging bills” (dramatic legislation with little chance of passing or being upheld, such as the Life At Conception bill), while pledging to end Roe v Wade.

Yet, abortion was not a make-or-break electoral cause. In 2018, sociologist Ziad Munson concluded

[…] for the vast majority of the public, abortion is simply not a key issue they consider when deciding their vote.

Most Americans still support abortion rights

Dobbs v. Jackson, however, transformed the political landscape. Support for abortion is now at a record high among Americans, with 69% believing abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy and 61% believing that overturning Roe v. Wade was a “bad thing”.

Women and young people have rushed to register as new voters. And 21% of registered voters describe abortion as the issue they would be unwilling to compromise on, a sentiment most pronounced among Democrats and independents.

In the 2022 midterm elections in the US, voter anger over Dobbs v. Jackson was widely credited with stopping the expected “red wave” in Congress and state races, even as President Joe Biden’s approval rating hovered around 40%.

Abortion was also central to Democrats gaining control of the Virginia state legislature in 2023.

Seven states have voted on abortion referendums since the Dobbs v. Jackson decision. All were decisive victories for reproductive rights, including in traditionally red states such as Kansas, Kentucky and Ohio. In Ohio, one in five Republicans voted to constitutionally protect abortion access in the state.

Democrats have an issue to rally support

All of this points to abortion being a major issue in the presidential election later this year.

Biden, a practising Catholic, is an unlikely pro-choice ally. In 1973, he believed the Supreme Court went “too far” in the Roe v. Wade decision. During his decades in the Senate, his views evolved and he now believes Roe v. Wade “got it right.”

Initially, the Biden administration was slow to respond to the palpable threat to reproductive rights in the lead-up to Dobbs v. Jackson. It took Biden 468 days to publicly say the word abortion as president, and he still rarely uses the term.

After Dobbs v. Jackson, however, both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris became assertive in defence of abortion rights. Legislatively hamstrung, the administration used the Food and Drug Administration, the Justice Department, and executive orders to try to protect and expand access to abortion and contraception across the country.

And abortion will be “front and centre” for Democrats in the 2024 elections.

In advertisements, Senate briefings, campaign events, and television appearances, Democrats emphasise the suffering caused by what they call “draconian” Republican abortion bans and the advocacy work of doctors and reproductive rights groups.

To drive home the point, the Biden-Harris team made their first joint campaign appearance of the year in late January at a reproductive rights rally in Virginia, a day after what would have been the 51st anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.

For Republicans, it’s complicated

Dobbs v. Jackson was the fulfilment of a Republican promise decades in the making. Publicly, Republicans celebrated. Privately, some believed the party was “the dog that caught the car”.

Anti-abortionists have always viewed overturning Roe v. Wade as merely a first step, with the ultimate goal being an end to legal abortion nationwide. Since Dobbs v. Jackson, anti-abortion groups have pushed for:

Since the Republican primary campaigns began last year, however, the silence among prospective candidates has been striking.

Most presidential aspirants have preferred to talk generically about “protecting life.” Nikki Haley, the only candidate remaining to challenge frontrunner Donald Trump, has spoken vaguely of the need for “consensus” on abortion at the federal level.

As for Trump, he ran Facebook advertisements before the Iowa caucuses last month calling himself “THE MOST Pro-Life President in history.” Yet, simultaneously, Trump is positioning himself as an abortion moderate.

Trump’s cynical about-face should come as no surprise. In 1999, Trump claimed to be “very pro-choice.” By the 2016 Republican primaries, he had become much more extreme and controversial in his rhetorical opposition to abortion.

Trump has repeatedly dodged questions about whether he supports a federal law, refusing to support the idea of a 15-week ban championed by his former vice president, Mike Pence.

In September, he described Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ signing of a six-week abortion ban in his state as “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” Then, in January, Trump told a Fox News town hall audience that on abortion, “there has to be a little bit of a concession.”

Initially, anti-abortion activists condemned Trump, even picketing one of his Miami rallies with signs declaring “Make Trump Pro-Life Again”. However, with Trump widely expected to be the Republican candidate, these groups are now falling in line. Ultimately, they need him far more than he needs them.

The new Republican timidity about abortion does not mean that conservatives have had a fundamental change of heart. As Trump put it, “you got to win elections.” If they win the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress in November, Republicans will most likely continue their assault on abortion and reproductive rights.

In January, Biden’s job approval rating hit record lows at a time of historic inflation levels. Even though abortion has been political poison for Republicans, it may not be enough to help Democrats hold onto the White House.

Abortion rights at center of 2024 U.S. elections

What to know as the battle over abortion rights shifts to state ballots in 2024

How Democrats, Republicans are tackling abortion issue ahead of 2024 election

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