Two years after Dobbs, activists look to capitalize on abortion-rights support ahead of the November election

Two years after Dobbs, activists look to capitalize on abortion-rights support ahead of the November election

Activists protest at the U.S. Supreme Court as the court hears oral arguments in the Food and Drug Administration v. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine case in Washington on Tuesday, March 26, 2024. 

Bill Clark | Cq-roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Two years after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade forced advocates to rethink their messaging on abortion, Democrats are leaning into the issue, hoping to sway enough swing voters to propel President Joe Biden to a second term.

But in a tight election that could be decided on a slew of issues, including several that voters rank as more important than abortion, it’s unclear whether Democrats can tap into enough conservative-leaning votes to keep them in the Oval Office.

Nearly 28 million women of reproductive age live in states with partial or total bans on abortion, according to Planned Parenthood data provided to NBC News. Several states with partial bans could prove decisive for presidential contenders in November, including Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina.

Democrats have watched pro-abortion-rights candidates and positions win again and again in purple and even red states. Now, with less than five months before voters cast their ballots, pro-abortion-rights advocates are looking to replicate those successes nationally.

Campaigns work to strike a contrast

Biden laid the blame for the end of Roe at former President Donald Trump’s feet Monday, saying in a statement that Trump “is the sole person responsible for this nightmare.”

“The consequences have been devastating: in states across the country, Trump’s allies have enacted extreme and dangerous abortion bans — many with no exception for rape or incest — that are putting women’s lives at risk and threatening doctors with jail time,” Biden said.

Biden’s re-election campaign is going full force on the second anniversary, hosting dozens of campaign events across swing states. The events all work to drive its framing of November’s election as a decision between one candidate who protects abortion rights and another who will attack it.

First lady Jill Biden made a trip across the vital swing state Pennsylvania on Sunday, which she continues Monday. Vice President Kamala Harris will hold a campaign event Monday in Arizona, the state she and the president won by just over 10,000 votes.

The Democratic National Committee also announced that it is investing at least $8.3 million this year among state parties, according to a memo shared with NBC News.

The budget marks a 25% increase since 2020 “to ensure voters know about Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans’ assault on reproductive rights,” according to the memo.

In a split-screen moment, Trump embraced his role in the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling Saturday. He also touted the three Supreme Court justices he nominated — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — all of whom sided against Roe’s precedent.

“We did something that was amazing,” Trump said in a speech Saturday before the Christian Faith & Freedom Coalition in Washington, D.C. “The big problem was it was caught up in the federal government, but the people will decide, and that’s the way it should be.”

Trump has shifted his stance on abortion for decades, referring to himself as “very pro-choice” at one point and at another point suggesting women should be punished for seeking abortions. He has also waffled on whether he would support a national abortion ban. On Saturday, he repeated that he supports exceptions for abortion in cases of rape or incest or when the life of the woman is at stake.

John Conway, the director of strategy for Republican Voters Against Trump, told NBC News that some voters believe Trump will “move wherever is politically expedient on the question of abortion.”

“I think some of them definitely clocked the fact that Trump’s judges were responsible for overturning Roe versus Wade,” Conway said, referring to conversations he observed in focus groups.

“But I do think the Biden campaign needs to continue to raise the salience of that particular point to really make the case against Donald Trump when it comes to abortion, just because he is so much harder to tie down on what his personal stance is on abortion at any given time,” he added.

Democrats look to flip swing voters

Abortion has proved to be a mobilizing issue even in red-leaning states. Since the Dobbs decision, pro-abortion-rights activists won victories in Ohio, Kentucky, Kansas and other states.

But in a closely contested presidential race, it’s unclear whether Biden will have similar levels of success. An NBC News poll in April found that only 6% of registered voters viewed abortion as the most important issue facing the country.

Twenty-three percent of voters named inflation as the most important issue, followed by immigration and the situation at the border, threats to democracy, and jobs and the economy.

In Engagious’ Swing Voter Project focus groups of North Carolinians who cast ballots for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020, 11 of 12 participants agreed that abortion would drive a considerable part of their decisions for whom to back in November.

“I have a daughter, and I have been through that experience myself and am very much an advocate for women,” said one of the focus group participants, Michelle, 55, of Candler, North Carolina. “And I think that once they take that away, they’re coming for a whole other set of rights for women next.”

But Michelle, whose last name is not used in the focus group, said she would vote for Biden “if that is the only choice that I have,” adding that she would not be happy about it. Michelle said that in a five-way race among Biden, Trump, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West and Jill Stein, she would pick Kennedy.

“The question comes down to what is more distasteful to them: the Dobbs decision or the prospect of four more years of Biden,” Rich Thau, the moderator of the Swing Voter Project, told NBC News. “So if it’s the Dobbs decision that they dislike more, they’ll hold their noses and vote for Biden. If it’s Biden they dislike more, they’ll tolerate the Dobbs decision, even though they say that they oppose it.”

Ads highlight prominent cases

Democrats and pro-abortion-rights groups have funneled money into shedding light on the impact of the Dobbs decision, and some advertisements have been credited with making or breaking a candidate’s prospects.

Hadley Duvall was featured in a viral advertisement for Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s re-election bid last year. In the ad, Duvall recounted being raped by her stepfather and spoke out for abortion access.

Beshear won and thanked her in his victory speech. Now, Duvall is speaking out again ahead of November’s election.

“If you have a woman in your life that means something to you, her life is at stake” in the election, she said in an MSNBC interview alongside the vice president.

Like Duvall, Amanda Zurawski became a prominent example of the impact of abortion bans after, she said, she nearly died when doctors denied her an abortion when her water broke at 18 weeks.

Zurawski lived in Texas, where abortion is banned with few exceptions. Now, her parents are speaking out in new advertisements by the pro-abortion-rights organization Free & Just.

In two advertisements, shared first with NBC News, Zurawski’s parents, Mike and Cheri Eid, described feeling they were “about to lose” their daughter. The couple emphasized that “a national abortion ban would be devastating for all families.”

“You can’t change what happened in their story,” Zurawski’s mother told NBC News. She added that she hopes that by speaking out, “we can change the narrative and we can change other people’s stories.”

The advertisement is part of the group’s $1.5 million television and radio advertisement investment in Wisconsin and Ohio.

“Our granddaughter was tortured for three days,” Zurawski’s father told NBC News, referring to when Zurawski was denied an abortion despite suffering extreme complications. “Is that pro-life? Is that compassion?”

In the advertisement, Zurawski’s parents say they are conservative. Mike Eid told NBC News he thinks “the Republicans need to wake up” on the issue of abortion.

Abortion is an issue that spans political parties, said Veronica Ingham, Free & Just’s senior campaigns director.

“When you see people who are from your community talking about this, I think it’s easier to relate,” Ingham said. “And I think, again, that’s why having a broad variety of messengers is really important.”

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