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Four years ago, Jennifer Abel broke a lifelong record when she cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton, the first time she voted for a Democrat.
“Donald Trump just doesn’t epitomize any of my value system, and I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for him,” said Abel, a mother of six who lives in southern Virginia.
For years, Abel’s stance on abortion has guided her voting record. She considers herself “pro-life,” she said. But especially now, that identity has taken on a new meaning. Between the president’s stances on immigration, his rhetoric on race and, most recently, his approach to handling the coronavirus, she said, she doesn’t think the Republican Party approaches her definition of valuing life after birth.
So, Abel — along with her husband and 18-year-old son — is voting for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, despite his avowed commitment to maintaining abortion access. And she’s encouraging other women she knows to do the same.
“How can you call yourself a pro-life president if you refuse to be completely forthcoming about the ways most lives can be protected?” she said. “The pandemic has really shone a giant spotlight on the hypocrisy of a lot of people who have fallen into that pro-life camp.”
Abel is the kind of voter Trump is counting on to win, one he has explicitly appealed to in recent rallies: a White suburban woman, a conservative, and a Christian who opposes abortion.
White women and White Christian voters played a critical role in Trump’s 2016 victory. But polling and focus groups make it clear that the coalition is developing cracks. White women are increasingly abandoning Trump. White Catholics and White mainline Protestants — groups that both backed Trump in 2016 — are less likely to support the president than they did four years ago.
And abortion has taken a backseat to other health care concerns. The issue ranks as a low priority for most voters, including White Catholics and White Protestants, who are more concerned with COVID-19 and health care, per recent polling from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Voters generally favor Biden on both of those issues, separate polling suggests.
Still, anti-abortion White women will likely still break for Trump this year — only 16 percent plan to vote for Biden, per PRRI. It sounds small, but it’s just enough to make a difference, especially as the president’s support weakens across the board, said Natalie Jackson, PRRI’s research director.
“He’s lost pieces of so many different groups that it matters,” Jackson said. “There’s not one large group that’s turned against Trump. It’s pieces of different groups. It’s pieces of White women, it’s pieces of older Americans.”
Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who frequently holds focus groups with undecided women in swing states, says that anti-abortion voters have cited a number of reasons why they will not back the president this year.
Some women cite Trump’s criticism of protesters speaking out against police violence and racial injustice this summer. Others point to the president’s immigration policies, including the notorious stance of separating families at the southern border, which sparked national headlines in 2018 and is back in the news.
Above all, there is the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 Americans and disproportionately affected women economically and in terms of mental health consequences.
“There’s plenty of people I hear in the focus groups who say … ‘I could never vote for a Democrat because I’m pro-life,’” Longwell said. “But I’ve also heard with about equal time from women who consider themselves pro-life, who have always voted Republican because they are pro-life, who are voting for Joe Biden or leaning for Joe Biden this time, for whom race and Donald Trump’s general behavior and divisiveness has become something that has caused them to rethink the frame around what it means to be pro-life.”
For Jody Delikat, a 49-year-old evangelical Christian voter in Madison, Wisconsin, the past four years have forced her to go through that reckoning. In 2016, she wrote in a vote for John Kasich, the former Ohio governor who ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign. This year, she’s planning to vote for Biden, even though she is anti-abortion.
“A lot of heart-to-hearts with people I love has helped me understand there is a difference between pro-birth and pro-life,” she said. “Separating children and putting them in cages is not pro-life. Refusing to wear a mask is not pro-life. I really view that stance as really hypocritical — you can’t say you respect life only for unborn children and disregard other life.”
Trump has heavily emphasized abortion in the months leading up to the election, flooding the August Republican National Convention with anti-abortion speakers, and, more recently, nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, a move that abortion-access advocates fear could lead to overturning or weakening Roe v. Wade. At Thursday’s final presidential debate, though, Barrett and the topic of abortion in general were noticeably absent.
The president’s emphasis on abortion during his 2016 campaign, including promises to appoint Supreme Court justices who might overturn Roe v. Wade, is believed to have played a role in his victory. But the true picture is more complicated, which could help explain why recreating that formula is proving a challenge.
For one thing, not all of Trump’s female supporters actually opposed abortion rights, Longwell noted — so emphasizing the issue now does little to win them over. And women interviewed by The 19th, who all said they opposed abortion personally and had, in the past, factored it into their voting patterns, expressed attitudes ranging from skepticism to downright disapproval of the idea of Roe v. Wade being overturned.
The majority of White women — about 59 percent — say abortion should remain legal in most or all cases, according to PRRI. Polling conducted before and after Barrett’s nomination showed no difference in how voters ranked abortion in shaping their votes.
At most, a third of the general electorate includes single-issue abortion voters, who say they will only support a candidate who shares their stance on that issue. When you control for other demographic factors, the number drops substantially, Jackson noted — all patterns suggesting abortion is not driving a large enough voting bloc.
Opinions on abortion appear less important in determining support for the president than attitudes on immigration, said Ryan Burge, a pastor and a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University who focuses on politics and religion. That appears to have been true in 2016, as well.
White evangelical voters in favor of abortion rights but opposed to immigration appear more likely to back the president than those who oppose abortion but support immigration, per his analysis.
And Republican women are more likely to disapprove of Trump’s immigration record, he said, which Burge believes could drive more people to vote for Biden this year. Among Republican women who strongly approved of Trump, 53 percent supported family separation, compared to 62 percent of comparable men, per his research. Of those who somewhat approved of Trump, 23.4 percent of Republican women supported the policy, compared to 35.5 percent of Republican men.
“Women are much more reluctant to separate families,” he said. “That cuts against them more than abortion.”
Meanwhile, Trump has spent little campaign time talking about the issue that appears to be affecting even anti-abortion women most: COVID-19.
“This is part of the overall conversation about why he’s doing so poorly with women in general,” Longwell said. “He’s not talking about the things that matter to these women. If there’s one thing that matters to them, it’s their lives have been upended by coronavirus.”
For Lacine Aday, in Texas, the coronavirus is a key factor in why she is voting for Biden.
“I think Donald Trump could have done a whole lot more to save lives. I do think he has blood on his hands for how he’s handled this,” said Aday, a 43-year-old independent voter from Flower Mound.
Aday is active in her church, and opposes abortion, though she doesn’t believe criminalizing it is an effective approach. Her top issues include addressing the pandemic and better gun regulation, especially since she has three school-aged children. Before Trump, she said, she would have identified as an evangelical Christian. But now, she finds the term’s association with the president hard to swallow. She’s not so sure what to call herself anymore.
After Trump’s 2016 election, Aday, who was one of the few Christian women she knew to vote for Clinton, started a private Facebook group for people like her. It began with about 10 women, White Christians in the surrounding community who didn’t support the president.
But since then, its membership has ballooned. Of the 225 women in the group, Aday estimates that half are lifelong Republicans who cannot bring themselves to vote for Trump this year. Because the group is private, she said, they feel comfortable talking about their change in views — even though none would express their political shift in public.
Aday doesn’t see Texas going for Biden this year. But longer term, she foresees a trend that’s hard to ignore.
“There’s going to be a whole lot more [Democratic] votes than there ever were before,” she said. “It’s creeping in that direction.”