NICOLE RUSSELL: Is the Republican base ready to compromise on abortion?

President Trump is the de facto GOP nominee. While pro-life, he supports a 16-week ban, not the usual six-week ban many pro-lifers do. Trump’s position may be attractive to some Independents and maybe even Democrats who see it as a reasonable and tenable compromise. However, it could endanger his base’s support, since they tend to favor more conservative positions. How will Trump’s abortion position affect his ardently evangelical base?  A better question might be: Trump’s compromise aside, can he galvanize a conservative, pro-life base when abortion isn’t really a landmark issue?

For decades, abortion has been a hot-button issue in presidential races. The issue peaked in 2022 after the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade and essentially tossed the issue back to each state to decide. Now, states have anywhere from full abortion bans — like Texas — to abortion nearly-on demand — like Minnesota.

In the nearly two years that have followed, abortion as an issue has still been controversial in some states, but it has lost some steam at the national level because there’s no real legislative or judicial component brewing. Worse, according to Gallup polls, pro-life sentiment hasn’t exactly increased in the last five years. In fact, 69% polled in 2023 believe abortion should broadly be legal in the first three months of a pregnancy, a record high. This doesn’t mean some states are wrong to have abortion bans or that pro-lifers have a poor political or moral position. But it could indicate that laws alone don’t encourage people to be more pro-life.

Trump’s stance on abortion has evolved over the years. Twenty-five years ago he was pro-choice. By the time 2016 rolled around, he’d made a reversal and then some. In a town hall debate Trump discussed potential “punishment” for women getting abortions. In 2022, he took credit for the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, due to nominating three originalist judges to the bench. At the 2023 Faith & Freedom Coalition Gala in Washington, D.C., Trump drew a hard line on late-term abortions, saying, “We have to be strong and powerful. That’s why when I’m re-elected, I will continue to fight against the demented late-term abortionists in the Democrat Party who believe in unlimited abortion on demand and even executing babies after birth.”

The fact that his message has shifted over time is not entirely unusual — a lot of people’s political beliefs evolve as they age. But going from supporting punishment for women who have abortions in 2016, when he needed to endear himself to conservatives for the first time, to reassuring his voting bloc that he’d oppose late-term abortions in 2023, when he needs more votes than ever to win, seems like a shift meant to cater to certain voting blocs. In 2024, Trump will likely need all the conservative votes he can get plus some independents or fed-up Democrats in order to win. The abortion issue has always galvanized conservatives, especially evangelicals, who largely support Trump. How will they react in 2024 when discussions of Trump’s 16-week abortion ban become more prominent?

Trump’s evolving stance could frustrate staunch pro-life activists, who feel their votes ensured the 2020 win of a president who did then have a hand in Dobbs, through the Supreme Court nominations. Pro-life advocates are not typically keen to see leaders change their abortion positions like the shifting winds just for political advancement. To many pro-life advocates, there is only one true stance: Being pro-life from “womb to tomb.”

For Trump, taking a more moderate stance could garner votes to help him win an election wherein he could feel it's advantageous to change his mind again. In terms of strategy, he may think it’s better to take a more moderate position that could procure more independent votes. He may view compromising on abortion as a necessary short-term sacrifice to accomplish a more important long-term goal: Four more years. It’s probably true pro-life purists will always wish Trump held a more conservative stance, like a six-week abortion ban. Are they likely to cast a vote for Biden because Trump doesn’t? No. 

Trump’s shifting abortion views may broaden the conservative party’s appeal momentarily, but then could open it up to severe infighting — the likes of which we’ve seen already between DeSantis, Haley and Trump. However, it’s also possibly true that now that the abortion issue rests with the states, Republican candidates no longer feel it's as pressing as it once was, and may, over time, engage on other vital issues facing our country.

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