Donald J. Trump is showing surprising resilience on the abortion issue, appearing less vulnerable than fellow Republicans despite his key role in shaping the Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade.
An Ohio referendum last Tuesday guaranteeing abortion access and similar election results have bolstered Democrats’ hopes that they could repeat those successes in 2024.
But Mr. Trump has held steady in recent surveys even among voters who favor keeping abortion mostly legal. President Biden, who holds a big lead among those who want abortion always legal, led the “mostly legal” group by only one percentage point against Mr. Trump in the recent New York Times/Siena College surveys of battleground states.
Mr. Trump seems to have effectively neutralized abortion as an issue during the Republican primary. He appears to be attending to general election voters by employing vagueness and trying to occupy a middle ground of sorts, perhaps allowing voters to see what they want to see. And traditionally in presidential elections, a relatively small share of people will vote based on any one social issue, even if that issue is abortion.
Voters who want abortion to be “mostly legal” are about twice as likely to say they are making voting decisions based on economic issues over social issues like abortion. The only group of voters across the six swing states for whom societal issues are even close to as important as economic issues are white college-educated voters, and those voters are expected to be a smaller share of the electorate in a presidential year than in a low-turnout off-year election like the Ohio abortion referendum.
The share of voters who prioritize economic issues over social issues has increased by more than 12 percentage points in favor of the economy since the 2022 election, according to Times polling in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona.
Joel Graham, 49, of Grant County, Wis., said he would like abortion access to remain widespread: “In my mind, it’s not a politician’s choice, it’s a woman and a family’s choice.”
“If Trump is elected, I have some concerns that there’s a chance he would put more hard-core conservatives on the Supreme Court and they might crack down more on abortion,” he said. Still, he says he plans to vote for Mr. Trump again because of his economic policies and concerns about the Biden administration’s foreign policy.
Mr. Trump has been on many sides of the abortion issue over the years. In 1999, as a member of the Reform Party, he said he was “very pro-choice.” When he ran for office in 2016, he said women should be punished for having an abortion, then later took it back. Recently, he took full credit on his social media platform for being the one who ended the constitutional right to abortion in America: “I was able to kill Roe v. Wade.”
When pressed in September whether he would sign a federal abortion ban at 15 weeks, he declined to give a definitive answer. “I’m not going to say I would or I wouldn’t,” he said.
Conservative Republicans such as evangelicals have urged Mr. Trump to come out more forcefully against abortions, but evangelicals have been among his biggest backers, and he is unlikely to lose their support. And for many Republicans who want some abortion access, his lack of a defined stance — combined with his seeming long-term indifference on the issue — has not been a problem.
“I haven’t seen Trump say something either way on abortion; he doesn’t seem to care either way and that’s fine with me,” said one of the respondents, a 38-year-old woman from Schuylkill County, Pa., who spoke on condition of anonymity. She wanted abortion to be mostly legal, she said, and planned to vote for Mr. Trump again.
With the possible exception of Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s opponents for the Republican nomination have seemed to struggle to address shifting views on abortion. Gov. Ron DeSantis largely avoided the topic on the campaign trail, having signed a six-week abortion ban in Florida, a law that has been called extreme by some members of his own party. Mr. Trump called it “a terrible mistake.”
Mr. DeSantis quietly came out in support of a federal 15-week abortion ban earlier this year, after months of dodging questions, and criticized Mr. Trump: “Pro-lifers should know he is preparing to sell you out.”
But Mr. Trump has distanced himself from more restrictive abortion laws, favored by some in his party, seeming to recognize their unpopularity. Half of swing state voters oppose a federal 15-week abortion ban, while 42 percent are in favor. Voters who want abortion to be mostly legal are fairly divided on a 15-week ban, with a slim majority opposed.
For those who want abortion to be mostly legal, Mr. Trump’s role in overturning Roe doesn’t appear to be a big concern.
“I don’t think Trump was responsible for the Supreme Court’s decision,” said Michael Yott, a 37-year-old police officer from the Detroit area. “I honestly think that Trump is just for less government and states’ rights, and I’m fine with that. Now with Roe being gone, it’s up to each state to create their own rules and that’s fine.”
Mr. Yott said he hoped some access to abortion would be maintained, particularly in early stages of pregnancy, but added, “My answer contradicts the stance of Republican candidates, but it’s just not that high on my list of issues.”