Late Tuesday, the Alabama state Senate passed a law prohibiting nearly any abortion in the state. While the vote was a culmination of a long-standing push by conservative politicians in a conservative state, the timing was not an accident.
In other words, it’s about creating legislation that might force the Supreme Court to revisit its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which allowed women to obtain abortions in certain circumstances. Conservatives feel confident in bringing that fight back to the court because of how the balance of power on that bench has shifted in the past two years. The addition of Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh has given conservatives a robust majority and made a revisitation of Roe viable.
All thanks to a president whose views on abortion were in flux even as the 2016 presidential election unfolded.
Exit polls conducted during the vote that year reinforce how important white evangelical Protestant voters were to Trump’s election. About a quarter of voters that year identified as evangelical, and Trump won 80 percent of their votes. In other words, about a fifth of all votes were cast by evangelicals for Trump.
It’s likely that evangelical voters would have voted overwhelmingly for any Republican candidate that year. They had offered a similar level of support to Mitt Romney four years prior and to George W. Bush in 2004. But it may not be the case that another elected Republican would have been as fervent in his advocacy for issues of concern to evangelical voters, including and particularly abortion.
Trump’s presidency has been unusual in its effort to deliver for the political base that gave him the White House, an effort that has meant a hard push on appointing conservative judges, direct and vocal support for issues of importance to religious voters and an overt embrace of the pro-life movement. The president’s reelection strategy has long been to run up the score among his supporters, and his administration’s focus on that base is his strategy to do so.
But it was not a foregone conclusion during the 2016 primaries that Trump would be the candidate whom evangelical voters embraced. As the primary progressed, Trump was often but not always the first choice of evangelical voters, who seemed to be weighing ideology against viability for much of the contest.
Before Trump got into the race, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee led with evangelical voters, a reflection of his ties to that constituency. As Trump gained in support, he also gained with more religious voters. But while his lead in the overall Republican vote was never really challenged, he twice faced significant challenges from competitors for the evangelical vote. Both Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) at times matched or surpassed Trump’s support from religious voters, according to polling conducted at the time by Quinnipiac University.
It’s understandable that religious voters would be wary of Trump, particularly on the issue of abortion. Not only was he an unusual representative of the concept of “family values,” having been married three times, once to a woman with whom he’d been carrying on an affair, but his stated position on abortion two decades ago was that he was pro-choice.
“I’m very pro-choice,” Trump said in an interview with Tim Russert in 1999. “I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I listen to people debating the subject. But you still — I just believe in choice.”
At the time, he was a political independent, contemplating a 2000 presidential bid on the Reform Party ticket. By 2011, he was again thinking about running, but this time as a Republican. Appearing at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he claimed to be pro-life. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper shortly after announcing his actual presidential bid in 2015, he repeated that claim — but only after accidentally describing himself as pro-choice.
(As Carson began to surge in late 2015, Trump disparaged his opponent’s own flip-flop on abortion. “Well, how does that happen where you were pro and not long ago, by the way, and then all of a sudden you can’t even have exceptions,” Trump said. “So that’s an unusual stance, and I think people will look at that.”)
A month into his candidacy, Trump received a robust endorsement of his views on abortion from the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody. In an interview, Trump offered his support for pro-life legislation that was current in Congress and explained to Brody how his interactions with a friend who’d contemplated abortion changed his mind on the subject.
Brody explained why that was good enough for many evangelicals.
“For all the media wondering why evangelicals are attracted to Trump’s message, here’s why: most evangelical Christians see the world and issues as black and white. They operate in biblical absolutes,” Brody wrote that month. “They are also ripped by people for speaking out about their conservative biblical views. In much the same way, Donald Trump speaks out on his views and is ripped. He also sees the world as pretty much black and white and absolutely operates in non-negotiable absolutes. See the kinship?”
Trump’s black-and-white view on abortion, though, lacked depth in some important ways. In March 2016, as he was locking down the delegates he would need to win the Republican nomination — and as Cruz was making a strong run against him — Trump was asked by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews if his pro-life views included supporting legislation that would impose criminal punishments on women who had abortions.
You could watch as Trump considered the question and came up with a response.
“The answer is . . . that,” Trump said, pausing briefly and glancing to the side as he considered his response, “there has to be some form of punishment.” He punctuated the word “has” with a sort of karate chop.
This, however, was not the position of most pro-life activists. In short order — even before the interview aired, the campaign offered two statements clarifying Trump’s position and molding it into something more closely resembling the consensus conservative position.
A few days later, Trump slipped up again in an interview with CBS News, saying that it would be better to leave abortion laws to the states but that “at this moment, the laws are set, and I think we have to leave it that way.”
Conservative groups reacted with outrage, as you might expect. The Trump campaign again offered a clarifying/reshaping statement (they’re set until Trump becomes president) even before the segment aired.
Trump was indifferent to offering detailed policy positions during his presidential bid, dismissing them at one point as something of interest only to the media. In some senses, that was true; most voters didn’t care about his specific views on Ukraine, for example. But on abortion, the details mattered — and at a crucial time, Trump flubbed them.
The effect of those flubs, though, was significant. Not only did they harden Trump’s official positions on the subject, but they also demonstrated to the candidate that this was a realm where the rhetoric was intentional, the details were complicated — and that the base was energetic. It reinforced the incentive for Trump to embrace pro-life voters in a way that he might not otherwise.
His nomination of then-Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana to be his running mate reinforced his intention to embrace religious and pro-life voters. Pence speaks their language with fluidity, and his presence allowed Trump to avoid getting into the nitty-gritty. It also ensured that the issues of religious voters would remain near the forefront of the administration’s agenda once Trump got to the White House.
A year after his inauguration, Trump became the first president to address the annual March for Life in Washington.
“The March for Life is a movement born out of love. You love your families, you love your neighbors, you love our nation, and you love every child born and unborn, because you believe that every life is sacred, that every child is a precious gift from God,” Trump said, reading from a teleprompter.
“Under my administration, we will always defend the very first right in the Declaration of Independence, and that is the ‘right to life,'” he added later. As he was wrapping up, he made a promise from the White House.
“We are with you all the way,” he pledged.