With President Donald Trump’s coronavirus performance ratings underwater and most Americans still worried about the economy, this week’s Republican National Convention turned the spotlight away from the pandemic, instead amplifying the nation’s decades-long abortion debate.
COVID-19 has killed more than 180,000 Americans, infecting more than 5.8 million — the highest case-count in the world.
Still, convention speakers rarely discussed the pandemic. Out of dozens of people, First Lady Melania Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Ivanka Trump and the president were the only speakers to dedicate major time to it — a contrast to the emphasis at last week’s Democratic National Convention.
The administration’s COVID response has been panned by public health experts, who point to delayed action, inadequate testing and worker protection measures, and premature reopening of states and cities as unforced errors that exacerbated the pandemic’s impact. Trump has also been a vocal advocate for schools reopening classrooms, despite concerns about further spreading the virus, and has come under fire for touting unproven treatments including hydroxychloroquine and plasma therapy.
Instead of the pandemic, speakers — including President Trump, anti-abortion advocates Abby Johnson and Sister Deirdre “DeDe” Byrne, and former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz — cast the election as a decisive choice between, in Byrne’s words, “the most pro-life president this nation has ever had” and what Holtz called “the most radically pro-abortion ticket in history.”
“Democratic politicians refuse to protect innocent life but then they lecture us about morality,” Trump said, adding, “all children, born and unborn, have a God-given right to life.”
In his speech, he criticized “late-term” abortions — a term scientists and doctors criticize as medically misleading and politically charged, but which is generally considered to apply to abortions done toward the end of the second trimester or later. (The vast majority of abortions are performed at 13 weeks of gestation or less. Abortions done near the end of pregnancy are typically performed because of serious medical need.)
The abortion emphasis speaks to the convention’s audience, experts said: fewer swing voters or independents, and instead, the president’s base. After all, heading into the election, neither reproductive health generally nor abortion specifically were top-of-mind issues for most voters, per January polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a non-profit health policy research organization. Even now, Democrats name the pandemic as a top issue, and Republicans say the economy.
Still, abortion opponents have long been one of the president’s staunchest sources of support. So the emphasis, experts said, isn’t surprising.
“We talk about single issue voters, and there’s not a lot of single-issue voters other than abortion,” said Ashley Kirzinger, KFF’s associate director for public opinion and survey research. “His response to the coronavirus outbreak has really kind of dropped, and so reminding voters that he is their candidate on reproductive health is going to be key to his re-election strategy.”
Abortion restrictions have been a major priority for the White House, noted Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state reproductive policies for the Guttmacher Institute. Trump was the first sitting president to attend the national “March for Life.” Both of his picks for the Supreme Court, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were lauded by anti-abortion activists. Those picks, Nash added, sent a signal to states whose lawmakers oppose abortion — soon after Kavanaugh’s confirmation, states signed 25 new abortion bans into law, including the controversial bans on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. (Critics of those bans noted that many women do not realize they’re pregnant at six weeks.)
The Trump administration has issued its own regulations meant to curtail abortion access, including prohibiting health care providers that counsel on abortion from receiving Title X funds, grants intended to help provide family planning services for low-income people. Prior to the ban, Planned Parenthood said it served 40 percent of the people benefiting from the program, providing services including STI screenings and contraception. (The Title X rule faced legal challenges from 23 different states, as well as from groups including Planned Parenthood and the American Medical Association. The litigation is still pending.)
“You’re seeing what happens when an administration is very actively anti-reproductive health and anti-abortion,” Nash said.
At the RNC, speakers cited those policies — and in particular, their implications for abortion access — in making their pitch for Trump.
“Take action that re-elects our president, and do it with our very most vulnerable Americans in mind,” Johnson said in her Tuesday night speech.
But the politics are tricky.
Anti-abortion messages resonate with Trump’s core supporters, noted Natalie Jackson, the research director at the Public Religion Research Institute. Most Republicans believe abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, including 59 percent of Republican women in the suburbs, per the institute’s 2018 polling. Abortion opponents are more likely to be single-issue voters: of the Republican women who oppose abortion, 28 percent say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views.
In that context, Trump’s abortion appeal – especially if it extends past the convention — could energize existing supporters and help retain Republican White women voters who otherwise might have defected. Still, the convention is one week of campaigning— and still months out from Election Day.
“The RNC is trying to remind these voters that there’s a reason why they voted for Trump,” Kirzinger said. “It makes electoral sense that this would be an issue they would want to talk about, rather than the economy, which is struggling, and Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, which voters are increasingly describing as negative.”
But it’s unclear whether, in 2020, it will draw a broad enough coalition. White suburban women have been identified as a critical voting bloc in recent elections, and are more likely to change their minds about a candidate. But Republicans make up only 23 percent of suburban women; 35 percent are independent, and 35 percent are Democrats. And of the suburban White women who are independent — another potential swing vote — 61 percent say abortion actually should be legal in most or all cases.
“As far as appealing to independent women, I’m not sure abortion is necessarily a super effective tactic. What they’re really trying to do with the abortion appeals is shore up the base,” Jackson added. “Their play is to make sure people turn out to vote.”