GOP Presidential Hopefuls Are Trying To Thread The Needle On Abortion : The NPR Politics Podcast For decades, abortion has been a motivating force for the Republican base. But in a post-Roe, world, it's become a political liability in general elections.

That leaves 2024 presidential hopefuls attempting a balancing act: how to appeal to primary base voters that oppose abortion rights, without alienating the moderate, independent and swing voters who support them.

This episode: White House correspondent Deepa Shivaram, political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben, and political correspondent Ashley Lopez.

This podcast was edited by Lexie Schapitl. It was produced by Lexie Schapitl and Jeongyoon Han. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi.

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GOP Presidential Hopefuls Are Trying To Thread The Needle On Abortion

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JAMES EDWARD MILLS: Hey there. This is James Edward Mills, the official photographer for the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree. I'm on my way home after photographing the harvest and delivery of my ninth tree. The 63-foot Norway spruce was harvested on the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia. This podcast was recorded at...

DEEPA SHIVARAM, HOST:

1:06 p.m. on Monday, November 20, 2023.

MILLS: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but hopefully you'll get a chance to see the People's Tree and beautiful lights on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

SHIVARAM: It's Christmas.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: That is expertise, man.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: That is a massive tree.

SHIVARAM: That was a detailed time stamp.

KURTZLEBEN: Your ninth capital Christmas tree. That guy knows how to photograph that thing.

SHIVARAM: He's - I was going to say, he's seen it many times. He's a pro. I love that.

KURTZLEBEN: He knows its angle.

SHIVARAM: He knows his angles. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Deepa Shivaram. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

LOPEZ: And I'm Ashley Lopez. I also cover politics.

SHIVARAM: And today on the pod - how Republican presidential candidates are trying to thread the needle on one of the biggest and thorniest issues in the primary race - abortion. Abortion has been a driving force motivating Republican base voters for decades. But since the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Democrats, independents and swing voters have been turning out in election after election to preserve abortion rights. We've seen it in Kansas, Ohio, Virginia. Danielle, you've done a lot of reporting on this. We know that this has been an issue for decades, but how have the political dynamics around abortion shifted in these recent past few years?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, the political dynamics have shifted in a huge way. Ever since the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Republicans in particular have all sorts of new questions to face because Roe v. Wade set a standard of viability of around 24 weeks. Now, with that gone, states can set the gestational limits that they would like to. And so the Republicans, as the party that tends to oppose abortion rights, they are faced with the question of, how much do you restrict those rights in any given state? That really changed the game board on this in a big way, particularly for Republican voters. Because prior to that, you had Republicans who would talk about being - as they're phrasing - pro-life, opposing abortion rights. And that generally unified Republican voters who would - who could mostly, more or less, put themselves in the same camp as each other, right?

But now, since Dobbs, this is up to the states. And so many states have attempted to restrict abortion rights. And what have we seen in all of those states? In every single state that a referendum has been put forward, a constitutional amendment has been put forward, anything, we have seen voters, even in red states, vote in favor of abortion rights. So now the Republican Party is faced with threading, as you said, a very particular needle. For example, I was in Kansas covering the proposed constitutional amendment that could have greatly restricted abortion access in that state. And it was surprisingly not hard for me to find Republican and Republican-leaning voters who want to vote in favor of abortion rights. There are plenty of Republican voters out there who don't want to go as far as some of their Republican brethren.

SHIVARAM: Yeah, and this is an issue that, you know, you wouldn't really see Republican voters being split on for quite a long time. Like, everyone kind of fell in line on this, as we said, for literally years and years and years, election after election. And this is an interesting split, not only for Republican voters, but also for candidates, for candidates who are running for president right now. We saw a little bit of this play out just this past weekend, when Nikki Haley was asked about abortion at a conference of Christian conservatives in Iowa. Ashley, what did we hear from Nikki Haley then, and how has that played out in the last couple days?

LOPEZ: Well, I think Haley was specifically asked whether - you know, if she was governor still of South Carolina, whether she would sign a six-week ban on abortion. And she said, yes. I mean, she said, I think the quote was, yes, whatever the people decide. And this is notable because somewhat recently, we heard Nikki Haley strike a softer tone on abortion during the latest debate. And so, I mean, it's really interesting because, you know, for the most part, how candidates are dealing with this issue gives you a pretty good insight into what slice of the Republican, like, voter pie they're trying to carve out for themselves. And candidates like Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis are really trying to appeal to more base Republican voters, those Christian conservatives. But they also know that if they somehow become the Republican nominee, which still remains kind of a long shot for them - but, you know, if that is the position that they're in later, whatever they're saying now to those base voters is going to be a liability for them moving forward.

KURTZLEBEN: Maybe a shorthand that you can use for this is striking a moderate tone without being moderate on abortion...

LOPEZ: Right.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Because all of the candidates, when they come before a Republican audience in campaigning for this primary, for these caucuses, they are identifying as pro-life. I mean, Donald Trump is getting out there and saying, I'm the most pro-life president ever. Nikki Haley always talks about being strongly pro-life - Ron DeSantis very much. This is not a group of candidates who are in any way trying to be moderate on the issue. But they do know, once again, that abortion has gotten much more tricky for them post-Dobbs. They know that when they see these votes in Kansas and Ohio and so on, that is a very clear sign that there are even some Republicans who might be displeased with too staunch of a, quote-unquote, "pro-life stance." The question is, are those people primary voters? Maybe not. But they are probably the people that they think would be in their column in a general election.

SHIVARAM: Yeah. And it's interesting. I mean, this is just fascinating because of this dance that Republican candidates are trying to do. And at the same time, on the other side of the aisle, you see the DNC, you see the Biden campaign being really adamant that, no, moderate is not the word to describe, you know, what the Nikki Haleys of the world are saying. And that kind of a response, I think, is something you're going to hear from Democrats more and more to try to counter that kind of juggling and that dance that we were saying before that candidates are trying to do. But we mentioned Trump and how he's sort of been speaking on this issue - some silence, relatively, when it comes to a federal abortion ban. A little confusing there. What does Trump believe in this?

KURTZLEBEN: It's not so much silence as a lot of kind of confusing tap dancing. And I really think Trump's stance on abortion is best captured in this September clip from NBC's "Meet The Press." He's talking to Kristen Welker here. And she asked him, what would you do on abortion if you were elected president again?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

DONALD TRUMP: We're going to agree to a number of weeks or months or however you want to define it, and both sides are going to come together. And both sides - both sides - and this is a big statement - both sides will come together. And for the first time in 52 years, you'll have an issue that we can put behind us.

KRISTEN WELKER: At the federal level?

TRUMP: It could be state or it could be federal. I don't frankly care.

SHIVARAM: So what does that mean (laughter)?

KURTZLEBEN: Exactly. I mean, he really, really has a lack of specificity on this. And you hear some of that lack of specificity from Nikki Haley too. But in the case of Trump - right, he - so he's saying there, I'm not going to say yes or no to a federal ban. And furthermore, he truly seems to believe that he is going to get stakeholders from both the pro- and anti-abortion right sides somehow into a room to agree to some sort of restriction on this issue, at least this is what he says. And that seems difficult.

SHIVARAM: But odds of that happening - -10%, roughly. Like, that doesn't seem like that's rooted in reality.

LOPEZ: Yeah. I mean, not surprisingly, like, this is just another example of Trump not really having to play by any of the political rules that everyone else is having to play by. And quite frankly, he doesn't need to, right? He's well ahead of any of his challengers in the primary so far, and he really hasn't faced any backlash from his own core group of supporters for not participating in any of the debates and not talking about this. And he - you know, not really doing a lot of meaningful interviews on policy about this. So unlike Haley and DeSantis, for example, he really hasn't been too pressed on weighing in on policy.

The main way that Trump is communicating with his voters ahead of the election right now, you know, besides, some social media, of course, is rallies. And rallies are a one-way kind of conversation. And what he's been saying in his rallies is he's posturing himself as this kind of, like, pro-life person, and he also takes credit for the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. So in a lot of ways, you know, he kind of is like, I've already done most of the work that all these people, you know, are hoping to achieve. And because he's not talking about it in his rallies, I will say his supporters at those rallies don't care much about this issue as well. Because when I ask them what they care about, abortion has never come up.

KURTZLEBEN: And I've been to a couple of Trump rallies in Iowa, where there are plenty of white evangelical voters who very much care about abortion. And I've pressed some of these voters on the fact that Trump has been less than specific on his stances. And they have said, well, he is - he opposes abortion rights, just like me. I mean, they really see him as having already proven himself on this.

SHIVARAM: Yeah. We've been talking about - a little bit about where voters are standing on this issue, and we'll get more to that after this break.

And we're back. So Danielle, we've been talking about the politics around abortion in 2024, talking about the candidates. But let's get into the policy side of things. You have been consistently tracking where the Republican field stands on different abortion restrictions, policies, including a federal ban on abortion.

KURTZLEBEN: Right.

SHIVARAM: So where do the candidates come down on this ban, and how do they differ in terms of when in the pregnancy abortions would become illegal?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So the question of a federal abortion ban in this presidential race has largely centered around a 15-week federal ban. That is something that former Vice President, also former Republican presidential candidate this cycle, Mike Pence - he was pushing for it, but also something that other anti-abortion rights groups have been pushing for. Of the candidates we've been talking about today, Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley have both said that they support a federal ban. Chris Christie, Vivek Ramaswamy - they both have said no. And Trump, as we said earlier, has been noncommittal on this. Now, there have been some shades of gray, though. Nikki Haley has said she would sign a ban, but she always, lately, couches it in, but the Senate would never pass this anyway, so this is really kind of a moot point. So that is how she tries to soften her language on that.

LOPEZ: You know, I'm curious, Danielle, like, when we're talking about Ron DeSantis - I mean, he does support a 15-week national ban. I'm curious if he supports a six-week ban because he did just sign one this year in Florida. And he has said that he wants to make America Florida.

KURTZLEBEN: I'll be honest, I don't know if he has actually been pressed on that. And I reached out to all of these candidates, by the way, on all of their views on all of the abortion topics that we are talking about today, and I heard back from very few of them. And one of the...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Ones I didn't hear back from was Ron DeSantis. One thing you do have, though, I will say, in this race, is a lot of candidates when they are pressed on - well, do you want to do X at the national level? - often candidates will say, well, states get to do what they want at this point...

SHIVARAM: Right.

KURTZLEBEN: ...After Dobbs.

SHIVARAM: There's another part of this, too, which has been pushing restrictions on the medications that are used in the majority of abortions in this country. Those drugs are mifepristone and misoprostol. Are the candidates weighing in on this, too?

KURTZLEBEN: No.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: Long story - no. And this is a really important question because presidents, as we have seen from both Trump and Biden, do have at least some leeway in terms of how much they want to restrict or not restrict access to medication abortion. So, for example, shortly after the Dobbs decision, Biden instructed his health and human services secretary, Xavier Becerra, to use every available lever - that was the phrase they used - to protect access to medication abortion, to work through the FDA. For example, the FDA lifted restrictions earlier this year to allow people to get abortion pills at a retail pharmacy, just the pharmacy down the street. So that's one way.

The other way is the Justice Department. So Merrick Garland has recently asked the Supreme Court to take up a case in which an appeals court said that the pills couldn't be sent through mail or telemedicine. Long story short, the Biden Justice Department this year asked the Supreme Court - could you please keep these pills available through the mail or telemedicine? - because that is a way that women in states where abortion is very heavily - is heavily restricted or banned, that's a way that those women can get those pills.

LOPEZ: I actually think there's something really interesting politically about the fact that candidates, especially Republican candidates in our primary, haven't felt the need to weigh in on this because restricting medication abortion has been a long-term goal, at least in the past several years, of the anti-abortion lobby. And for many years, this is the kind of thing that Republican candidates would take their cues from all the time. But because the political winds have changed and the anti-abortion lobby is so out of step with the electorate right now, it's really interesting that Republican candidates in a Republican primary aren't talking about this.

SHIVARAM: Yeah, it's kind of - it's so notable because this is not only a story of what the candidates are saying but also what they're not saying.

LOPEZ: Exactly.

SHIVARAM: I know we talked about voters a little bit earlier, but I'm curious what else you all have heard from folks on the trail as you've traveled out in the country, particularly among some of these Republicans who maybe have historically voted with a, quote-unquote, "pro-life stance" and are maybe now in a shifting position here. Are they focused on things like, you know, I prefer a six-week ban over a 15-week ban? Are they talking about banning these drugs? I mean, when they speak about abortion, if they even are, what are you hearing?

LOPEZ: I think the most interesting group of voters that I've talked to are suburban voters, like people who are - would largely consider themselves independent but mostly vote for Republicans. And what I have heard is really not a lot of specificity about policy. That's not really surprising. Voters don't tend to be really technocratic when they think about how policy affects their lives. But what I have heard mostly is just a sort of discomfort with the extremism of some laws.

You know, I will say, like, one of the last times I talked to suburban voters was I went to a county kind of close to Austin here, and I mostly looked for Republican women. And so Texas has, you know, probably the strictest abortion ban in the country right now. It's almost, you know, besides saving the life of the mother, you really cannot get the procedure here. And that has really changed the way I hear a lot of voters that I would usually hear say that they support Republicans on this issue sort of shift away from that. And I think, you know, that's a telling sign for Republicans because suburban voters are a demographic and a sector of the electorate that Republicans need to do better with. They've been really struggling the past couple of years.

KURTZLEBEN: I think those are the voters that are really going to be more interesting to watch on this as we approach a general election, perhaps those Republican-leaning voters, people who have voted for Republicans for time immemorial. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of this issue, people's opinions start to really shift or splinter a bit when they start to think about the particularities of what happens with a tighter abortion ban.

SHIVARAM: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Definitely an issue we will keep hearing for the next 11 or so months - 11 months, is that right?

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

SHIVARAM: OK.

KURTZLEBEN: Eleven and a half, yeah.

SHIVARAM: Like I said, time is not a real thing.

(LAUGHTER)

SHIVARAM: Definitely an issue we're going to keep hearing for the next 11 or so months as we hit election year once again. Thank you, guys, so much for everything and all of your reporting. We're going to leave it here for today. I'm Deepa Shivaram. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics.

LOPEZ: And I am Ashley Lopez. I also cover politics.

SHIVARAM: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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