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Abortion could be Trump’s Waterloo

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Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in Florida does not stay in Florida. This week the state’s highest court issued a pair of rulings that ought to keep Donald Trump awake at night. If any issue can bring suburban women out against him, it is reproductive freedom. The court approved one of America’s most draconian anti-abortion laws, yet also gave Floridians the chance to settle that question in November. If Democrats had scripted two rulings likelier to spur turnout, it is hard to think what they might be. 

In 2024, “hands off our bodies” should be as prevalent in Joe Biden’s mind as “it’s the economy, stupid” was for Bill Clinton in 1992. Florida’s twin decisions were almost ideal for Biden’s campaign. The court upheld a de facto ban on abortion — six weeks being too soon for many pregnant women to know, let alone act; yet it gives voters months to experience the law before they say what they think of it. Close to two-thirds of Floridians support abortion rights. Roughly the same applies nationwide. 

Which raises the question why Republicans are pushing so hard on a sure election loser. The answer is that the party’s evangelical tail is wagging the party’s dog. Florida’s six-week ban was put in place by its governor, Ron DeSantis, to bolster his credentials with Iowa’s conservative Christian voters ahead of the Republican primaries. DeSantis dropped out shortly after his poor Iowa showing. The fact that it was the comparatively moderate Nikki Haley, not DeSantis, who was Trump’s last rival standing should have given Republicans pause for thought. 

The Christian right’s legal wins illustrate the adage, be careful what you wish for, you might actually get it. The Supreme Court’s overturning of the Roe vs Wade right to abortion in June 2022 was one of the biggest reasons Republicans failed to sweep the midterm elections a few months later. Voters in conservative states like Kentucky and Kansas overwhelmingly supported abortion rights in referendums, which damaged Republicans at the ballot box. The same is now threatening to repeat itself in a US presidential election

As my colleague Peter Spiegel laid out, Trump kept encountering “secret non-Trump voters” in the Republican primaries. Time and again, his polling numbers sharply overstated what voters decided in the privacy of the booth. A lot of this seems to have been down to female Republicans coming out for Haley. Polls in Michigan, for example, which is a state he would have to win in November, gave him a 57 per cent lead over Haley. The end result was a 42 per cent victory. In Virginia his margin of victory was around half what polls had forecast. The big exception was Iowa, where caucusing is public. That only underlines the point. 

But gifts such as this week’s Florida’s rulings will not fall into Biden’s lap every week. Moreover, Florida is probably too Republican nowadays to convert it back into a swing state. The key for Democrats is to expose the beneath-the-radar erosion of women’s bodily autonomy in states across the middle of the country. Set-piece addresses have a half-life of a few hours. Doing photo-ops in swing states with women whose health is endangered by having to carry ectopic pregnancies to term, for example, or pregnant rape victims forced to travel hundreds of miles to escape prosecution, is worth a hundred White House statements. 

It is an open question whether Biden’s campaign has the single-mindedness to see this through. It has two blind spots. The first is that the president’s team is broadly the same as the one that defeated Trump in the 2020 pandemic. Biden has to keep showing up. Another social distancing campaign will not work again. The second is the belief that American voters will be motivated to save US democracy. There is little evidence to show that the republic’s health is uppermost in voters’ minds, however much Washington politicos believe it should be. This is the classic is/ought confusion to which Democratic consultants are prone: voters ought to value liberal democracy, so they will. 

In practice, 2024 will boil down to tiny margins in a few Midwestern states. “Make America pray again” is Trump’s latest coinage, along with a drive to sell $60 bibles. It is easy to laugh at such brazenness. But there is abundant evidence that otherwise conservative women are keen to keep judges out of their bedrooms. A majority of congressional Republicans support the Life at Conception Act. “Fetal personhood” is now the law in a number of states, including Iowa. The fact that many Americans are unaware of such laws is a measure of Biden’s long road ahead. 

edward.luce@ft.com

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