clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump’s pitch to evangelical voters, explained in one RNC speech

He’s “the most pro-life president we have ever had,” according to anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson.

Anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson speaks during the Republican National Convention.
Republican National Committee/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Abby Johnson came to the Republican National Convention with a very simple message: if you oppose abortion, you have to vote for Donald Trump.

“He has done more for the unborn than any other president,” the anti-abortion activist said in her speech on Tuesday night, before listing some of Trump’s actions to limit abortion, including his reinstatement of the global gag rule, which bars health care providers abroad that receive US aid from performing or discussing abortions.

Then she delivered an impassioned plea to abortion opponents like her: “This election is a choice between two radical anti-life activists and the most pro-life president we have ever had. That is something that should compel you to action, go door-to-door, make calls, talk to your neighbors and friends, and vote on November 3.”

It’s a strategy that worked once before. In 2016, Trump was hardly a natural choice for many evangelical voters and other social conservatives. He didn’t know much about the Bible, he doesn’t seem to understand the basics of a church service, and, of course, he’d been caught on tape bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy.”

But Trump made a big promise to evangelical voters and other opponents of abortion: when he was elected, Roe v. Wade would be overturned “automatically.” It wasn’t his only appeal to evangelicals, but it likely contributed to his overwhelming win with white voters in this demographic in 2016.

Now, there may be even more stacked against Trump. His disastrous response to the Covid-19 pandemic has left nearly 200,000 Americans dead. The economy is in crisis. What’s more, he hasn’t actually been able to fulfill his biggest promise to anti-abortion voters: despite his nomination of two conservative justices, Roe, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established Americans’ right to an abortion, still stands, at least for now.

But Johnson and others are betting that for the most committed abortion opponents, the prospect of a Biden-Harris administration friendly to abortion rights will be enough to convince them not just to give Trump a second chance — but to bring their friends and neighbors along. And they might be right.

Johnson’s speech laid out the anti-abortion case for Trump

Johnson was a natural choice to deliver this message. She’s not an elected official but, at this point in her career, a bit of a celebrity — perhaps like Trump himself.

Once the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas, Johnson resigned in 2009 — after, she says, watching an ultrasound-guided abortion changed her mind about the procedure. She later wrote a book about her experience, made into the 2019 film Unplanned, which overperformed, especially in red states.

Johnson came under criticism ahead of her convention speech for comments made earlier this year that police would be “smart” to racially profile her son, who is biracial. “Statistically, my brown son is more likely to commit a violent offense over my white sons,” she said in a YouTube video, as Vice News reported. (Johnson responded to criticism on Tuesday by tweeting that abortion-rights advocates were “SO scared of my speech tonight” that “they are scrambling to try to find anything to detract people from my message”.)

Still, she began her speech by calling out Planned Parenthood for racism, repeating the false claim that the group strategically places clinics in majority-minority neighborhoods.

She then detailed Trump’s accomplishments for the anti-abortion cause, including a rule allowing health care workers to refuse to perform abortions and the appointment of “a record number of pro-life judges, including two Supreme Court justices.”

While Trump has indeed taken a number of executive actions to restrict abortion, his judicial appointments can’t be called an unqualified win for the anti-abortion side — yet. With the addition of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, both appointed by Trump, many were hoping that the Supreme Court this year in the case June Medical Services v. Russo would overturn or at least significantly weaken Roe. That didn’t happen — instead, the Court found in favor of an abortion clinic and blocked a Louisiana abortion restriction.

The result is that Trump’s 2020 sales pitch to abortion opponents isn’t as strong as it could have been — but with a second term, he might have a better chance of fully delivering.

With four liberal justices remaining on the Court, many say conservatives don’t have the votes yet to overturn Roe outright. But if Trump gets reelected, he is likely to be able to appoint at least one more justice. That would give conservatives a much better chance than they had this year of reversing the landmark abortion decision.

Of course, evangelicals also have more reasons than ever not to vote for Trump — his cavalier attitude toward the deaths of Americans, for example. And there’s some evidence that Trump’s approval rating is slipping even with the evangelical voters who overwhelmingly backed him in 2016.

Johnson’s role, then, was to remind such voters that one of their biggest prizes is not yet won, and that they need to reelect Trump to win it.

“Take action that reelects our president and do it with our very most vulnerable Americans in mind,” she urged them in closing her speech. “The ones who have not been born yet.”

New goal: 25,000

In the spring, we launched a program asking readers for financial contributions to help keep Vox free for everyone, and last week, we set a goal of reaching 20,000 contributors. Well, you helped us blow past that. Today, we are extending that goal to 25,000. Millions turn to Vox each month to understand an increasingly chaotic world — from what is happening with the USPS to the coronavirus crisis to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work — and helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world. Contribute today from as little as $3.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.