The anti-abortion movement is pouring substantial resources into upcoming elections, having been galvanized by President Trump, who has purportedly shifted the political landscape to make the issue a winner in November.
On Monday, canvassers for the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List will deploy to Wisconsin — decided by a 0.77 percent vote gap in the 2016 presidential race — in an attempt to sway a narrow margin of voters to support anti-abortion politicians.
In total, the organization's paid canvassers have already visited more than 1.1 million homes and aim to reach more in critical battleground states Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, and Michigan before Nov. 3.
Students for Life of America (SFLA), the National Right to Life Committee, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council (FRC) and others are flexing their activism arms — 501c(4)s — to warn about candidates’ stances on abortion. SFLA specifically plans to make 1 million phone calls, knock on 250,000 doors and register voters on 153 college campuses. Because of COVID-19, it’s leveraging digital efforts to reach 21 million voters under the age of 30.
Like the above groups, the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Trump campaign plan to emphasize what they see as Democrats’ “extreme” views on the issue.
“Generally, internal data shows that voters’ views on abortion don’t tend to change year over year,” RNC national press secretary Mandi Merritt said. “However, we do consistently see polling that shows Americans do not support the fringe extreme views that Biden has endorsed.”
A confluence of factors has led to what SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, who also chairs the campaign’s “Pro-Life Voices for Trump,” sees as the most consequential election in her lifetime. That’s probably why Planned Parenthood Votes, which represents the nation’s largest abortion provider, has committed $45 million for its largest electoral effort to date. It recently announced seven-figure efforts for Pennsylvania and Maine, where Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is weathering criticism over her support for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
"Poll after poll shows that voters want champions for reproductive health — including the right to access a safe and legal abortion — in public office," the group said in July. "Politicians who want to take those rights away aren’t just pursuing bad policy, but a losing political strategy."
Both sides have credited Planned Parenthood Votes with former anti-abortion Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., losing earlier this year -- something Kristen Day, head of Democrats for Life, framed as a sign of the party’s alleged drift from moderation.
Carrying a similar message, Vice President Mike Pence recently campaigned in Florida, highlighting what activists describe as Democrats’ extreme stances on abortion. Pence wrote the introduction to Dannenfelser’s forthcoming book, “Life is Winning,” in which she boldly proclaims that, regardless of whether he wins, former Vice President Joe Biden will be “America’s last thoroughly pro-abortion presidential candidate.”
“It is like every other human and civil rights issue that has gone on for too long in a nation. We are at that breaking point,” Dannenfelser told Fox News.
However, Democrats maintain abortion access is a “fundamental human right” and describe the Hyde Amendment, which blocks taxpayer funding of most abortions, as a discriminatory barrier to marginalized women.
Under pressure from his own party, Biden reversed his decades-old position on Hyde, saying women shouldn’t be denied access due to their ability to pay. He’s also pledged to reverse Trump’s decision to reinstate a policy banning overseas funding for groups that perform or promote abortion.
Polling has reportedly shown support for its repeal. But January polling from Marist, in conjunction with the Knights of Columbus, showed about 60 percent of Americans oppose domestic taxpayer funding of abortion. The percentage grew to 75 percent when discussing overseas funding.
Biden’s also backed by Democratic leaders who have responded to conservative judicial victories by moving to codify Roe v. Wade; something already approved by New York state and included in a draft platform for the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
While some social conservatives bristle at Trump’s brash behavior, Dannenfelser sees his bluntness as an avenue for clarity in the abortion debate. Both she and SFLA President Kristan Hawkins praised Trump for telling former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton she would allow doctors to “rip the baby out of the womb” in the final month of pregnancy.
“I had counseled dozens of candidates from the presidential level down to the state legislature. Not one did a better job of communicating the visceral horror of abortion,” Dannenfelser, who has spent decades in the movement, wrote of Trump. “Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, even Ronald Reagan had been given on a national stage many opportunities to authentically witness to the depravity and extremism of abortion; all had shied away.”
According to her book, it was Trump who pushed for stronger wording in a 2016 letter announcing his anti-abortion commitments. And it was Trump who made the “most explicit” remarks on the issue at a State of the Union address.
Dannenfelser was with Trump before that event.
“The first issue” he brought up to Dannenfelser and his advisers was Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s comments about letting infants die after surviving abortions.
Dannenfelser’s book describes Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker as two of the movement’s “greatest champions.” But she also describes how both of them declined to take on anti-abortion legislation when she approached them about it.
For Rubio, she writes: "Energized by his passionate defense of life, I asked him in 2013 to lead the fight in the Senate for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Surprisingly, he declined. He had been burned by an earlier failed effort to move forward on an immigration reform bill and was reluctant to take the lead on this issue without 'all the ducks being in a row,' including unrealistic assurances about possible future constitutional rulings on the issue." Rubio’s office did not immediately provide comment.
Dannenfelser also recalls how in the 2016 cycle, Walker “demurred” from her request that he embrace state and national bans on late-term abortion. When she pressed him on a five-month ban making its way through Wisconsin, he allegedly said, “people back home aren’t talking about this.”
A spokesperson for Walker told Fox News: "Governor Walker has a strong pro-life record based on his belief in the sanctity of life of the unborn child. The Governor has spoken to countless people about this record, and he’ll continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with the pro-life movement to fight for these values."
Trump seemed to also favor pragmatism when he decided not to veto a budget that included congressional funding for Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) — something Dannenfelser defended to Fox News.
His re-election effort will also likely be dominated not by abortion, but concerns about COVID-19 and how the pandemic cut into the explosive economic growth he saw in his first term.
The RNC’s field program generally highlights abortion if targeted voters care about that issue.
“However,” Merritt said, “the major issues we are seeing right now that are resonating with voters are protecting the economy and defending law and order.”
Sarah Chamberlain, a GOP strategist, told Fox News: “I talk to couple hundred women around the country every week and abortion does not come up.”
One of her projects, Women2Women Conversations Tour, interviews suburban women and amasses data about their concerns before elections.
“The number one, two, and three issue is health care,” she said, noting heightened concern about children’s psychological suffering from shuttering schools during the pandemic. Eliminating pre-existing conditions, she added, was “not even open for discussion” as women worried about losing cover under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
PPFA and other groups have tied that issue more generally to abortion, claiming Republicans deprive women of “basic health care.” While PPFA’s public image centers on abortion and contraception, the group has used its myriad of other services to imply that defunding efforts threaten health more generally — mental health included.
Polling has shown over time, that voters tend to support some, but not all, restrictions on abortion. In May, for example, Gallup found that 50 percent of voters thought abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances, as opposed to any (29 percent) or none (20 percent). That ranking of preferences reflected Gallup’s historical data as well. And while a plurality say abortion is “immoral,” moderates (55 percent) tend to identify as pro-choice.
But Dannenfelser is confident that when it comes time to vote, a solid portion of Americans will be voting with the U.S. Supreme Court as a priority. Exit polling from 2016 seemed to bear out as the majority who saw Trump's nominating power as the most important factor lent him their vote. For both Clinton and Trump voters, a sizeable viewed court nominations as either important or their most important — with eight percent more Trump voters rating it as their most important.
Just months before the election, conservatives were disappointed by a series of Supreme Court decisions joined by GOP-appointed justices — prompting speculation that it wasn't a valid reason to support Trump. But Dannenfelser said voters told her group they weren't disillusioned with Trump's justices, and continued worrying about the issue as a factor in their vote.
On actual policy, the two sides of the abortion debate have polarized to the point that voters may feel like they’re choosing whoever’s “less extreme.” States like Missouri and Georgia have implemented restrictions as far back as six weeks into pregnancy. Alabama, meanwhile, eliminated exceptions for rape and incest — provisions that both Trump and the RNC chairwoman have, in some way, expressed opposition toward.
On the other side, former Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a perceived moderate former presidential candidate, echoed Northam in resisting mandates on lifesaving care for infants who survived abortions.
As if to underscore the emotions involved, SFLA and FRC Action plan to utilize baby clothes in their messaging. In September, FRC Action will deliver 90,000 baby hats to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. while SFLA intends to send its participating members baby socks.
Dannenfelser indicated that disgust over stances like Northam’s and opposition to Hyde could move enough persuadable voters to help Trump win the slim victories often found in battlegrounds like Wisconsin. An SFLA effort similarly aims to make abortion a first-order issue for students heading to the ballot box. The two organizations are teaming up to train students, as well as share data that identifies more than 2 million “persuadable” voters of all ages in six key states.
“Who you talk to is even more important than what you say,” Dannenfelser told Fox News. SBA’s internal data purports to show higher turnout among those contacted by the organization in swing states during the last three election cycles. Targeted Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, Dannenfelser said, also tend to move an average of 7% in response to the group’s microtargeting.
Even if anti-abortion groups fail to persuade Democrats toward Trump, the group might be able to at least stop them from voting for Biden. Reflecting on Lipinski’s loss, Day previously suggested to Fox News that anti-abortion Democrats might just sit out the next election.
According to a June Gallup report, 24 percent Democrats consider themselves pro-life. January’s Marist poll also showed 44 percent of Democrats said they were "more likely to vote for" candidates who would limit abortion to the first trimester.
As Dannenfelser noted, the 2016 election came down to roughly 77,000 votes in three states. She added: “That’s why all of these things on the margins make such an enormous difference.”