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The Complicated Importance Of Abortion To Trump Voters

An anti-abortion-rights activist demonstrates in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in June. Many Trump voters (or potential Trump voters) bring up abortion in explaining their voting rationale.
Nicholas Kamm
AFP via Getty Images
An anti-abortion-rights activist demonstrates in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in June. Many Trump voters (or potential Trump voters) bring up abortion in explaining their voting rationale.

If President Trump wins Wisconsin again, he'll have Republican stalwarts like Mary Ludwig to thank.

"I always vote Republican because I'm so against abortion," she said, sitting next to a lake in the Milwaukee suburb of Oconomowoc on a recent summer evening.

Ludwig has some reservations about Trump; she says that she doesn't like the "offensive" things he says. On the other hand, she also has things she admires about him: She really likes his kids and thinks he's handling the economy well.

But those are all secondary to the fact that she deeply cares about abortion, and Trump often speaks out against abortion rights. Therefore, she will vote for him for president.

"I'm a mother. I birthed three children," she said. "And the feeling of life in me is real at conception."

This is one way Ludwig is similar to many other Trump voters. In a year when Americans are thinking about recession, a pandemic, racial justice, climate change and policing, Trump voters (or potential Trump voters) repeatedly in interviews brought up abortion in explaining their voting decisions.

Two hundred miles away from Oconomowoc, in Cresco, Iowa, farmer William Goetch stood chatting with a friend outside a grocery store on a sweltering August day.

Goetch farms just outside of Cresco, in an area that voted solidly for President Obama in 2012 and then for solidly for Trump in 2016. I asked Goetch if he, too, could ever be a swing voter.

"No, I couldn't be. Just mostly because the issue of abortion," he said, noting that he doesn't like Democrat Joe Biden's support of abortion rights. (And, indeed, he was not a swing voter earlier, either — Goetch said he never voted for Obama.)

His friend, John Whelan, said he's undecided on who he'll support. But listening to Goetch, Whelan said that he thinks abortion might sway his vote, as well.

"You hear the abortion thing — that's kind of a big thing for being Catholic. So that could be the final straw," he said.

A high priority, but rarely the top priority

Biden wants there to be a federal law protecting the right to an abortion. (He did, however, flip-flop early in the campaign on whether there should be a ban on federal funding being used for abortions. He ultimately said he opposed such a ban.)

Trump, meanwhile, wants Roe v. Wade overturned and has said he only supports abortion rights in cases of rape, incest or protecting a mother's life. If he is reelected, he almost certainly will have a chance to name at least one conservative justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, possibly overturning the decision that legalized abortion in the U.S.

Figuring out how important abortion is to the electorate as a whole depends on which polls you look at — and how you ask the question.

"If you ask about the most important issue facing the country in comparison with issues like the pandemic, jobs and the economy, health care, our educational system, abortion barely registers," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.

As of August, less than 0.5% of Americans told Gallup that they consider abortion the most important problem in America.

But then, abortion is a top priority (if not the top priority) to far more voters. Fully 40% of voters see abortion as "very important" to their vote, according to a summer poll from Pew. That puts it well behind nearly a dozen other issues, but nevertheless shows its importance to a huge number of Americans.

Perhaps most revealing, a spring pollfrom Gallup found that about 1 in 4 Americans, particularly voters who oppose abortion rights, see abortion as a sort of personal litmus test. Fully 30% of people who consider themselves "pro-life" say they would only vote for a candidate who shares that view compared to 19% of people who consider themselves "pro-choice."

That disparity may be reflected in the relative status of abortion at this year's party conventions. While Republicans foregrounded the topic at their convention, for example with a speech from abortion-rights opponent and activist Abby Johnson, the topic barely came up at the Democratic convention, as The New York Times' Lauren Kelley noted.

One way to look at it is that abortion doesn't function for many voters as an issue in the way the economy does. Because many conservative Christian voters talk about seeing abortion as wrong because of their religious beliefs, abortion is closely tied to their core identity.

These types of polls, as well as these voter interviews, signal that abortion (and, specifically, opposition to abortion rights) is a big part of the glue keeping Trump's base together — a base that includes the overwhelming share of white evangelicals.

"It's an important part of maintaining [Trump's] coalition, but it is not the issue on which the election will be decided," Ayres said.

All of this said, it's important to note that many Americans have nuanced views on abortion — a plurality, 50%, believe it should be legal in certain circumstances, compared to the 3 in 10 who believe it should always be legal, and 2 in 10 who believe it should always be illegal.

In this screenshot from the RNC's livestream of the 2020 Republican National Convention, anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson addresses the virtual convention.
/ Courtesy of the RNC
Courtesy of the RNC
In this screenshot from the RNC's livestream of the 2020 Republican National Convention, anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson addresses the virtual convention.

How an abortion stance can change

The crucial role that abortion plays in Trump's base also means that when a voter decides abortion isn't the most important issue, or even moderately changes their opinion on abortion, they can easily fall away from the Trump coalition.

Adam Hardy, from Brooklyn Park, Minn., is one example of this. As a white evangelical, abortion was top of mind for him in 2016 when he voted for Trump. But Hardy can pinpoint exactly what made him decide he wouldn't vote for him again.

"Really, what happened with the caravan through Southern and Central America, and then having the children separated from their parents at the border is really what turned it for me to not supporting Donald Trump and not focusing on abortion as the sole issue of electing a candidate," he said.

Hardy is one of a small but important group of voters: those who voted for Obama and then Trump.

He's also an example of how voters' issue priorities can shift from election to election. He voted for Obama in 2008, largely as a vote against John McCain and Sarah Palin. He voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, believing he would handle the economy better than Obama. Then, abortion was top of mind when he chose Trump in 2016.

Hardy still considers himself anti-abortion, but he also believes it should be a personal choice, and he fears that if the practice were banned, people would dangerously attempt it themselves. He added that he thinks abortion-rights opponents need to expand their focus.

"The pro-life movement being solely focused on the unborn child seems to forget or ignore after birth how that child will grow up and what type of environment they will grow up in," he said.

Candidates will be fighting hard for votes from Hardy and his fellow Minnesotans. He thinks he knows how he'll vote, though he's not enthused about it. In particular, he added, he has reservations about Biden's age.

"In all reality, it's America and our terrible two-party system. And so until things change, I think I have to vote Biden just to ensure that my vote will be counted against Trump," he said.

This may make Hardy part of yet another crucial voting bloc: those unenthusiastic voters in the middle that candidates will try to sway, in hopes of swinging the election.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.