Republican 2024 candidates are walking the abortion line. One question is throwing them off balance

For decades an anti-abortion stance was the standard for GOP presidential nominees but since the fall of Roe v Wade, candidates have had to balance remaining loyal to the party without isolating a majority of voters. How will their stance affect their campaigns? Ariana Baio reports

Tuesday 05 December 2023 18:49 GMT
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The 2024 Republican candidates for president have an abortion problem.

At every campaign stop, town hall, debate and interview the elephant in the room manages to creep its way into the dialogue – how should a potential president approach the legality of abortion at the federal level, if at all?

For decades, the ideal GOP candidate would state their pro-life stance and disagree with the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v Wade to earn a gold star and potential endorsements.

But since the fall of Roe last year, the issue of abortion has become increasingly complicated and voters have made it clear they’re looking for a candidate who can take a nuanced approach to the subject.

Across the board, polling shows that most Americans believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases in the first trimester, regardless of party lines. Simultaneously, the same majority of voters also believe abortions should be illegal in the third trimester.

Yet, when candidates are confronted with the issue, many display an obvious struggle to remain loyal to the Republican party’s long-held belief while extending a compromising hand to the rest of the country.

Leading contender and wishy-washy abortion stance chief, Donald Trump, has criticised strict bans while also supporting the anti-abortion movement.

Mr Trump has consistently taken credit for the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade, citing his three conservative Supreme Court Justice nominations as a contribution – a promise that he made while running for president in 2016 and one that helped him get elected.

At the same time, he’s criticised lawmakers, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for enacting six-week bans believing they are too restrictive.

Seemingly, it’s an attempt to appeal to primary voters, who tend to be more conservative, while trying not to isolate general election voters, who tend to be more moderate. As a result, Mr Trump appears flaky to both sides.

Similarly, Mr DeSantis has never given a clear statement on his position when it comes to a federal abortion ban, despite signing a six-week ban in his state.

When confronted with the issue of a federal ban during the first GOP debate, Mr DeSantis said he would “stand on the side of life” as president.

But earlier in the year, the Florida governor criticised the federal government for protecting the right to abortion with Roe v Wade, calling it an “abuse of power” – something that would be hypocritical if they did the same to outlaw it nationally.

But other GOP candidates are fearless of isolating voters in their opinion on the issue - notably ex-vice president Mike Pence and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley for example.

Mr Pence holds the widely unpopular belief that all abortions after six weeks should be federally banned, even if a pregnancy is not viable.

He chose to spar with Ms Haley over the matter when she took a middle-of-the-road response during the first debate after Ms Haley said that although she personally chooses a “pro-life” stance, the US needs to “stop demonising” the issue and instead find common ground.

Rather than a complete federal ban, Ms Haley indicated she supports national legislation that would ban abortions in the third trimester, make contraception more widely available, decriminalise those who choose to obtain an abortion and more – all of which voters generally agreed upon.

Yet, Mr Pence criticised Ms Haley, the only woman running in the crowded GOP field, for trying to find consensus between Republicans, Democrats and independents.

“Nikki, you’re my friend. But consensus is the opposite of leadership,” Mr Pence said. “A 15-week ban is an idea whose time has come.”

Ms Haley, who appears to be appealing to more general election voters than primary voters alone, interrupted the ex-vice president to point out a major flaw in Republican’s desire for a federal ban.

“When you’re talking about a federal ban, be honest with the American people,” Ms Haley said. “We have had 45 pro-life senators in over 100 years. So no Republican president can ban abortions, any more than a Democrat president could ban all those state laws.”

Perhaps most striking, was the former UN ambassador’s statement acknowledging the impacts of abortion on voters, especially women: “Don’t make women feel like they have to decide on this issue when you know we don’t have 60 Senate votes in the House.”

After the debate, Mr Pence’s polling numbers dipped down to approximately 4.2 per cent. Ms Haley’s jumped from 3.3 per cent to 5 per cent.

Mr Pence later dropped out of the 2024 race.

While the jump may just reflect her well-received overall performance, there’s no denying her approach to abortion appeals to millions of voters in a way that Mr Pence doesn’t.

“When it comes to the issue of abortion, generally speaking, the American public really sees this issue with a lot of shades of grey,” Mallory Newall, the vice president of polling at Ipsos, told The Independent.

One poll from June found that two in three Americans believe abortion should be legal in early pregnancy with 34 per cent of the majority agreeing that there should be very few or no restrictions.

Ms Newall added: “When it comes to the question of legality, most Americans are in favour of abortion with some limitations.”

Twenty-five per cent of people believe abortions should be fully banned with exceptions in rape, incest or to save a mother’s life – and Republican voters make up the majority of that percentage.

Though the anti-abortion stance has long been associated with the Republican party, it didn’t always start that way.

Abortion became a hot-ticket issue for conservatives in the 1970s once the GOP realised they could seize Christian voters by promoting “family values.”

What emerged from the anti-abortion movement were several organisations and political action committees (PACs) that promised endorsements, and checks, to the candidates who proliferated the message.

Susan B Anthony (SBA) Pro-Life America, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce and eliminate abortions, as well as its PAC the SBA List Candidate Fund, was among those.

Since its formation in the 1990s, the organisation has dealt out endorsements which have become increasingly powerful over the years. Before last year’s ruling, a candidate’s anti-Roe and anti-abortion policy stance could earn them a spot on the list.

However, the new standard for SBA Pro-Life America seems to be a candidate endorsing a federal ban for, at the very least, 15 weeks.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the President of SBA Pro-Life America, said in a statement to The Independent that it is “imperative” the US has a leader who advocates “for national protections for the unborn by at least 15 weeks, when they can feel pain, a position which aligns with the majority of Americans.”

(The claim that a fetus can feel pain at 15 weeks gestation is disputed by multiple medical organisations including the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. There have not been consistent studies pinpointing the moment of gestation when a fetus can feel pain.)

Ms Dannenfelser called Ms Haley’s stance on abortion “not acceptable” accusing her of “dismissing” the task of obtaining enough votes in Congress to pass a federal abortion law as “unrealistic”.

Ms Haley’s stance on abortion will likely hurt her in the primaries. But she’s playing the long game in the hopes of picking up undecided voters.

“I think a candidate that shows more willingness to accept those shades of grey on abortion and one that says they do not favour a national abortion ban with no exceptions would be more successful with connecting those in the middle,” Ms Newall said.

Candidates like Vivek Ramaswamy and Doug Burgum have both said they would not support a federal ban to appealing to general election voters, while also supporting state’s enacting six-week bans to appeal to conservative primary voters.

Both Mr Ramaswamy and Mr Burgum have managed to hold onto their polling numbers, though significantly lower than Mr Trump, throughout their early campaign days.

While polling does show most voters are in favor of outlawing second-trimester abortions there are widely agreed upon exceptions like in cases of rape, incest or to save a woman’s life.

Ms Newall said that “a 15-week ban does better than a six-week ban” with voters but “even so, you’re only starting to win over a bare majority of Republicans”. She noted that Independent-registered voters are more likely to side with Democrats in opposing a 15-week abortion ban.

Looking to the 2024 election, GOP leaders may need to reconsider how high they set the bar when it comes to candidates endorsing a ban.

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