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How political stances on abortion have shifted — for Biden, Trump and voters

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As we've been discussing this week as part of our series We, The Voters, reproductive health is playing a huge role this election at the state and federal levels. Today, we're going to look at the presidential election and how President Biden and former President Trump are managing both to discuss and to avoid the topic of abortion. Joining us now are national political correspondent, Sarah McCammon - hey there.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: And senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Sarah, I want you to start. And I will start by noting both these men have changed their minds on this issue over the years. Their positions have not been stagnant.

MCCAMMON: Right. I mean, it's not as simple as Biden supporting abortion rights and Trump opposing them. You know, long ago, before Trump ran for office, he described himself as very pro-choice. When he ran for president, he clearly understood the importance of the religious right. He became anti-abortion rights, ran on a promise to overturn Roe v. Wade. Since then, he's bragged about his role in doing so when he speaks to religious and conservative audiences. But he's also cautioned Republicans against going too far in restricting abortion. And here's something he said speaking to the National Rifle Association over the weekend.

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DONALD TRUMP: In my opinion, Republicans have not been talking about it intelligently. They haven't been talking about it with knowledge or they were just wedded to something. But remember, speak from your heart, but you also have to get elected.

MCCAMMON: And, you know, his current line is that everything should be left to the states to decide. He's at the same time cautioned states against going too far. But he's also said he'd be open to letting states punish women who have abortions, which is a departure from, you know, a long-standing position of most of the anti-abortion rights movement.

KELLY: OK, that's Trump. What about Biden?

MCCAMMON: Well, Biden, too, has a long career in Washington and a complicated history with this issue. He is a devout Roman Catholic, and at times he's been criticized by members of his own party for not being vocal enough in supporting abortion rights. Since the Dobbs decision overturning Roe, he's become increasingly bullish on the issue. And he's been under a lot of pressure to do so from his own party as restrictions have taken effect. He made reproductive rights a major theme of the State of the Union this year.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Many of you in this chamber and my predecessor are promising to pass a national ban on reproductive freedom. My God, what freedom else would you take away?

MCCAMMON: And he also got some flak from abortion rights activists for not actually saying the word abortion in that speech. But he has been increasingly vocal about the issue.

KELLY: Domenico, hop in and take us straight to this moment. We have two candidates whose positions, as we just heard, have evolved. How is this playing out in their campaigns?

MONTANARO: It's immensely important, especially to the Biden campaign. They see this, as well as preserving democracy, as their two big areas of focus and key to mobilizing voters. You know, polls show that this is one of the only issue areas that Biden has a real advantage over Trump. And remember, Democrats have done well in election after election since the unpopular Dobbs ruling that overturned Roe. And this is the first presidential election since Dobbs. So given that, frankly, it would be political malpractice if the Biden campaign didn't focus on this.

KELLY: Sarah, do we know where this falls in terms of how big a priority it is for American voters?

MCCAMMON: For most voters, it's not a top priority. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in March found that just 1 in 8 voters say abortion is their No. 1 issue. Those voters tend to be Democrats. Women, especially Black women, are more likely to prioritize abortion over other issues. As we heard, Democrats do have public opinion on their side, though, when it comes to abortion. Several recent polls by Pew and the Public Religion Research Institute, for instance, confirmed that a clear majority of voters say abortion should be legal in most or all cases. But remember that support doesn't always translate to votes, because as we know, voters are considering a lot of other issues, too.

KELLY: Yeah. Although, this one seems to add up to a very big challenge for the Trump campaign. Domenico, how is he threading that needle?

MONTANARO: You know, this is tricky for Trump. He tries to take credit with his base for Roe being overturned. But on the campaign trail, he's mostly avoided it, except for saying that he wants to leave it up to the states. But it's been left to the states since the Dobbs decision and that's exactly what most people are unhappy about.

You know, no matter how he tries to tap dance around it, he can't escape the fact that it was his justices who were the reason for overturning Roe, which has resulted in these very restrictive laws, especially across the South. And they've been very unpopular. You know, the Dobbs decision has had real-life consequences for women. And it's not just about abortion but also miscarriages, because the medications that are used in early stage abortions are also used to treat pregnancy loss. That's something the Biden campaign has highlighted in campaign ads.

KELLY: Let's stay with this. Sarah, when you're out reporting, you're asking voters how they are weighing this issue, what do you hear?

MCCAMMON: A lot of swing voters, the type of voters that Biden needs to win over in November, have some complicated feelings about the issue. Take Josie Schmidt. She's an independent I met earlier this year at a Nikki Haley event in Richmond, Va., back when Haley was still running for the GOP nomination. And she has some mixed feelings about abortion.

JOSIE SCHMIDT: Deep down in my heart, I think I lean towards being pro-life. I lost twins at birth, and they were - I was only six months pregnant. And they weren't fetuses, they were babies. I don't think it's the government's position to impose a law about that. I don't think it works, for one thing.

MCCAMMON: So she's cautious about abortion restrictions. Schmidt told me she voted for Biden in 2020 but isn't very happy with his record as president. She said she might write someone else in. But she's the kind of voter that Biden really needs to persuade to show up for him.

KELLY: Domenico, last word to you. Any particular voting blocs we should be watching on this?

MONTANARO: Well, I'm looking squarely at college-educated white voters, both women and men. We've seen over the last two years a steady shift with those groups in Biden's favor, even as he's struggled with younger voters and voters of color. The Biden campaign is also trying to use the issue to mobilize young Latinos as well. That's shown up in ads. And the campaign knows they need every last voter who cares about this issue to turn out, because experts say this is going to be a lower-turnout election than 2020, so mobilization is going to be key.

KELLY: Domenico and Sarah, thank you.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

KELLY: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro and Sarah McCammon. The changing laws on reproductive rights have created what some activists call abortion deserts in parts of the country. We will hear from a health care provider in one of those regions as our series, We, The Voters, continues tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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