“It's a terrible idea, to make that a priority in Congress,” one woman said.
“I have two daughters, and while they're fortunate to have health care, I want it to be available to them,” another said.
A young man insisted that Trump wouldn't sign off on the plan. “As a businessman, one of the biggest things you don't do is do things without knowledge,” he said. He was one of five panelists, a majority, who agreed that Trump would veto an attack on Planned Parenthood.
The conversations among this and other focus groups, shown to Laura Bassett at the Huffington Post and Michelle Goldberg at Slate, demonstrated a truth about Trump that had been lost at the end of the 2016 campaign. At key moments in the Republican primary campaign, when faced with a conservative litmus test, Trump failed it — and it didn't slow him down. The result was that many voters came to see him as distinct from the Republicans, and conservatives, with whom they disagreed.
Taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood was the prime example. In August 2015, at the first Republican primary debate, he passed up a chance to condemn Planned Parenthood, saying that abortion represented a “small part” of the services the group offered. Antiabortion groups rounded on him; the first anti-Trump TV ads usually made mention of his past comments in favor of abortion rights and his waffling on Planned Parenthood.
Among those taking delight from this: Planned Parenthood's PR team. As the candidate thrived despite his defense of a group under constant congressional assault, Planned Parenthood suggested that he was showing Republicans where the country wanted to be. “Donald Trump seems to have realized that banning all abortions, shutting down the government, and defunding Planned Parenthood are extreme positions that are way too far outside the mainstream for even him to take,” the group stated.
As Trump won primaries, he bent on Planned Parenthood — but in a confusing way. At a February debate, he insisted that “millions of millions of women — cervical cancer, breast cancer — are helped by Planned Parenthood.” Parenthetically, he added that he “would defund it because I'm pro-life.” It was more striking that he had defended the group at all, and rivals such as Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) used that fact to attack him.
After Trump's Super Tuesday triumphs — including victories in Southern states, where his abortion stance might have been most problematic — he continued that theme. Thousands of people, he said, had sent him letters in support of Planned Parenthood. The caveat: “We're not going to allow and we're not going to fund, as long as you have the abortion going on at Planned Parenthood.”
Trump's doublespeak lost him no allies among social conservatives; once he was clearly in command of the Republican nomination, they portrayed him as, in James Dobson's phrase, a “baby Christian” who would appoint the right judges and sign the right bills, even if he had come late to the cause. The white working-class voters who powered Trump through the primaries and who would shatter Democrats' Midwest map viewed social issues as a low priority, far below the health of their local economy.
The result, according to Goldberg, was that voters did not come to see Trump as a danger on social issues they cared about — and that the Clinton campaign's messaging enabled this. The focus groups, she wrote, “suggest that the Clinton campaign made a fatal mistake in depicting Trump as outside the bounds of normal conservatism. Clinton’s camp had hoped that doing so would lead Republicans to defect. Instead, it helped some people who distrust conservatism to reconcile themselves to Trump.”
In the focus groups, some reluctant Trump supporters were most animated when told that Vice President-elect Mike Pence was adamantly opposed to federal funding for Planned Parenthood. During the campaign, Pence — helped by a strong, if fact-bending, debate performance — enjoyed the highest favorable ratings of anyone on the major-party tickets. But the Clinton campaign did not make his social conservatism an issue, and debate moderators asked almost no questions about social issues. The result, as Planned Parenthood sees it, may be an electorate that expects Trump to adhere to what he said in 2015 — and isn't aware of how social conservatives, fully in command of the Capitol, expect to get their way.