Playing Defense

Donald Trump’s Abortion Stumble Resurrects Powerful Wedge Issue

The Republican front-runner's critics in the party say he has handed Democrats a weapon.

Donald Trump Bashed From Left and Right Over Abortion

Donald Trump disavowed his own call on Wednesday for “some form of punishment” for women who choose to have an abortion if it is outlawed. But Republicans skeptical of their presidential front-runner say his fleeting remark handed Democrats a powerful wedge issue that has proved difficult to exploit in the past.

“His comments on abortion yesterday were disastrous,” said Ryan Williams, a former spokesman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “Saying he’s played into the Democrats’ hands on this issue would be a vast understatement. For a guy who considers himself a genius, he just made idiotic and moronic blunders on abortion. ... He’s given Democrats a huge amount of ammunition if he were to become the nominee.”

The issue of abortion wasn't central in the 2012 presidential election, Williams added, even though “the White House tried to use their megaphone distract from the president’s record on jobs and the economy—by promoting this phony ‘war on women’ narrative.”

Katie Packer, a Republican operative working to defeat Trump in the primary, responded to his abortion remark wryly on Twitter, writing that women “who get abortions go to jail. Men who abuse women go free. That'll help the gender gap.”

“This is like having Todd Akin at the top of the ticket,” Packer added in an e-mail, referring to the failed Republican Senate candidate in 2012 who sparked a firestorm by referring to “legitimate rape” during an interview.

Clinton Pounces

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton swiftly condemned Trump's comment, and outside Democratic groups saw an opening as Planned Parenthood and the pro-Clinton super-PAC Priorities USA rolled out a five-figure digital ad campaign going after his “punishment” remark.

“In 2012, we had Todd Akin to expose the GOP's efforts to control women's healthcare decisions for what they are. This cycle, we have Trump's record of misogynistic and offensive comments that dehumanize women,” said Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman for EMILY's List, a pro-Clinton group that works to elect Democratic women. “It's about his character—and about his policies that are going to make for devastating ads.”

“Horrific and telling,” Clinton wrote Wednesday on Twitter, adding: “We can’t let someone with this much contempt for women’s rights anywhere near the White House.” She resurfaced his comments in two fundraising e-mails Thursday morning and in a Web video released by her campaign, which also announced an afternoon call to discuss Trump's remarks with the leaders of the pro-abortion-rights groups Planned Parenthood and NARAL.

On the campaign trail Thursday in Purchase, New York, Clinton kept up her attacks.

“Donald Trump is showing us exactly who he is and we should believe him. But let’s remember this: all the Republican candidates want to make abortion illegal,” Clinton said. “If you make abortion a crime then you make women and doctors criminals.”

In recent presidential elections, the issue of abortion has served to mobilize each party’s base without giving either side a clear advantage. Polling by Gallup shows that the public's views on abortion have been remarkably consistent since 1975—about half of Americans want abortion to be legal only in some circumstances; less than a third want it to be legal in all cases (which is Clinton’s position). Surveys by the Pew Research Center say 51 percent of U.S. adults want abortion to be legal in all or most cases, while 43 percent say it should be mostly or totally illegal.

Trump's stance on abortion is the same as prior Republican nominees dating back to Ronald Reagan—he wants to outlaw it, with exceptions for rape, incest, and when the mother's life is at stake. His closest rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who opposes abortion even in cases or rape and incest, also went after Trump in a statement, saying, “Of course we shouldn't be talking about punishing women.” Trump's other rival, John Kasich, said the front-runner's abortion comments showed he was unprepared to be president.

‘Shoots From the Hip’

The danger for Trump is that the issue could damage his already poor standing with white women, a critical voting bloc for his path to the presidency, which Romney won by double digits in 2012. Recent surveys by the Washington Post show that 68 percent of white women view Trump unfavorably, while 29 percent view him favorably.

Clinton “can just say, brick by brick, ‘Here are all the ways Republicans are against you, young women,’” said pollster J. Ann Selzer, who conducts surveys for Bloomberg Politics. “She doesn’t say this directly but it’s the equal-pay story, it’s the abortion story, it’s all of these things where she’s building this wall for women without directly having to say ‘Vote for me, I’ll be a historical first for women.’”

In addition, Trump's backtracking could undercut one of the qualities voters who have backed him so far are attracted to.

“What has been his winning card is his style,” Selzer said. “So [Democrats] can take his style and say, ‘Look, he shoots from the hip, and things come out that he needs to walk back—there’s a pattern here and you can’t have a president who’s that cavalier.’”

Trump seldom mentions abortion on the campaign trail; the issue has taken a back seat to his core themes of cracking down on immigration and jettisoning trade deals. His initial remark Wednesday about punishing a woman who seeks an abortion drew rebukes from anti-abortion groups such as March for Life, which prefers to punish the doctor performing the procedure because women “who choose abortion often do so in desperation and then deeply regret such a decision.” Trump's final clarifying statement on the matter Wednesday returned to the party line and sought to put the issue to rest.

“If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case as is the life in her womb,” Trump said. “My position has not changed—like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions.”

—With assistance from Jennifer Epstein.

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