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Abortion Is Going to Be a Huge Problem for Republicans in 2024
Donald Trump (partly) explains why.
Happy new year! I hope you had a very nice holiday week and that your travel, if you were traveling, wasn’t too disrupted.
Personally, I had middling luck — Zach and I had three scheduled trips by air, and we were delayed on all three of them, in each case by between 2 and 36 hours. And we weren’t even flying Southwest! It’s a continuation of problems I discussed on the podcast last summer with— airlines remain thinly staffed and their operations are more fragile in the face of disruption, especially at holiday periods when they’re trying to max out their schedules.1
They could fix that by scheduling less aggressively, but be careful what you wish for. Demand for air travel is high, and reducing the number of scheduled seats would only increase the upward pressure on fares. Overall, the frothy situation in air travel — high loads, high fares, and deteriorating operational performance that doesn’t seem to reduce willingness to pay — remains one of my strongest indicators that we’re not entering a recession.
Now, some thoughts on politics, inspired by a former president.
Donald Trump says Republicans’ disappointing performance in the midterm elections wasn’t because of him. It was because of abortion, he said on Truth Social:
One notable thing about this statement is how clearly it shows Trump views pro-life voters as an “other.” “The people” who wanted Roe overturned “got their wish” and then “disappeared.” Doesn’t he count himself as one of those people who wished for Roe to be overturned? It’s bizarre phrasing for the officially pro-life leader of a party where 60% of voters say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
Trump’s relationship with social conservatives was always nakedly transactional — a transaction that worked out (unlike many Trump deals) with both sides getting what they wanted — but the attitude Trump displays here seems likely to interfere with his future efforts to extend that transaction. If social conservatives back Trump next time, they won’t just be looking for judges. They’ll be looking for exactly the kind of stringent abortion restriction policies he’s now saying are political suicide.
That said, Trump is right that the party has gotten itself on the wrong end of a wedge issue, resulting in election losses.2 But he actually understates the damage the abortion issue caused. He implies pro-life turnout was weak, but there’s no good evidence for that — Republicans generally enjoyed a significant turnout advantage over Democrats last year — and so there’s no mass of demoralized pro-life voters to reactivate and turn out next time.
The key problem was persuasion. Too many persuadable voters decided Republican candidates were unacceptable, including because of their abortion stances — to neutralize the issue, Republicans will need more appealing, more moderate positions.
The problem is, what positions can those be?
Trump seems to conceive the politics of this issue as being largely about exceptions for rape and incest — exceptions which he has consistently supported at least since the 2016 primary campaign — but polls tend to show clear majorities of voters who think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Abortion bans with no exceptions are extremely unpopular, but that doesn’t mean creating exceptions that apply only to a small number of the most alarming situations is sufficient to stem the political damage.
One Republican who ran very well in 2022 was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and one political advantage he had is that Florida has (so far) charted a moderate path on abortion compared to many other Republican-controlled states. Abortion in Florida remains legal through 15 weeks of pregnancy; since over 90% of pre-Roe abortions were performed in the first trimester, that means Florida law still permits a large majority of abortions that would have been allowed pre-Roe. This is a policy that can be defended politically: in 2018, Gallup polling found 60% support for the view that abortion should be “generally legal” in the first trimester, while only 28% of respondents said that about the second trimester.
But Florida’s 15-week ban predated the Dobbs decision. The state’s legislature wasn’t in session when Dobbs was handed down, and the Republicans who hold majorities in both houses are under significant pressure to further restrict abortion when they get back to work this month. DeSantis’s political strategy so far has been to fudge the issue — asked last month about a proposal to prohibit abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, he dodged, saying “I’m willing to sign great life legislation. That’s what I’ve always said I would do."3
The problem for him (and Trump) is that the fudging isn’t likely to work forever. Laws that broadly permit first-trimester abortions are politically sustainable because they satisfy public opinion by making abortions generally permitted in the circumstances when most women seek them. But pro-life activists actually want abortion broadly prohibited.
We have not yet seen what a Republican presidential primary looks like post-Dobbs. I expect the candidates will be asked over and over what they’ll do on abortion, in much the same way that Democratic presidential candidates are constantly pressed to outbid each other on health care policy. If all DeSantis has to offer is a ban at 15 weeks (or 12 weeks), he’ll be outbid. And if his state’s legislature sends him a ban at 6 weeks — one that would no longer meet the standard being broadly available in the first trimester — I have trouble imagining him vetoing it, reluctant though he is to make any promise on the record now.
Simply noticing that you are on the wrong side of a wedge issue is not sufficient to avoid damage from the issue. Trump can’t propose a solution to the problem because it’s very difficult to solve — the party’s base voters want something that’s newly available, and nobody’s demonstrated a convincing way to win a primary while telling them they can’t have it. Yet that thing is quite unpopular, rejected even by a substantial minority of voters within the party coalition. It’s a real pickle.
Speaking of Republicans’ internally created political problems, you are likely aware that the House of Representatives is likely to have some difficulty electing Kevin McCarthy to the speakership this week. I’ll be back in your inbox shortly to talk about what goes down in the vote — or votes, or many votes — to elect a speaker.
See also Dave Barry’s 2022 year in review, which includes this entry for June: “As the busy summer travel season gets underway, commercial aviation is severely disrupted across the nation because — this is a recurring problem — large numbers of people who have purchased tickets from the airlines are showing up at airports expecting the airlines to actually transport them to their intended destinations. ‘They keep giving us their money,’ states a baffled airline-industry executive, ‘and we frankly have no idea why.’”
He’s not right to absolve himself of blame for the election result — Republicans faced multiple problems, and some of those hard-line anti-abortion candidates are ones he boosted in primaries — but what do you expect him to say?
Some outlets incorrectly reported that DeSantis said he was “ready to sign” the specific six-week ban legislation, but you can go look at the 24th minute of this video and see for yourself that he doesn’t use this language. The issue seems to have been an erroneous report in a conservative outlet that got picked up at sites including National Review.