REUTERS via New York Post

From the Center

The holy grail of any political campaign is finding an issue on which your party’s base and centrist voters are on the same side. It’s been clear for some time now that both major-party presidential nominees have one of those issues in their pockets: Joe Biden on abortion and Donald Trump on immigration.

Biden knows that the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision has both galvanized pro-choice voters and greatly expanded their ranks. Trump understands that many Americans are far more supportive of his preferred type of restrictive border policies than ever before. But while both candidates will push their advantages as hard as they can, the one that does a better job of playing defense on the issue that separates their loyalists from swing voters will be the strong favorite heading into the fall.

In other words, who will do a better job of protecting themselves on an issue on which voters oppose them, Biden or Trump? Given Trump’s relentless base-first approach throughout all three of his campaigns, it would have been reasonable to assume that Biden would be the more aggressive of the two in addressing his political weakness. When the president announced his support for enhanced border security in the foreign aid bill last fall, it seemed as if the White House was attempting to reassure skeptical centrists that Biden could be trusted on questions of immigration policy.

But the aid for Ukraine and Israel and Taiwan passed without any border security measures. Even though Trump and congressional Republicans were responsible for its omission (largely to deny Biden a political victory), the result is that Biden was deprived of what could have been a valuable talking point in a policy area that has the potential to do him considerable harm. More recently, Biden’s advisors have been broadly and frequently hinting that he would be implementing some aggressive enhancements in immigration and asylum policy by executive order. Not surprisingly, this possibility has caused an impassioned outcry from Latino leaders and other progressives, who accuse the White House of considering steps similar to those taken by Trump during his presidency. At this point, Biden has yet to act.

At the same time, Trump has begun efforts to reach out to the center on abortion policy. The former president who appointed the three Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe vs Wade has frequently worried out loud about the potential problems that a strong pro-life message can create for conservative candidates with swing voters and seems determined to minimize that risk for himself. Earlier this month, he announced that he would not support a national abortion ban but instead believed that each state should decide on its own policy for the contentious issue. Pro-choice Democrats were outraged (and religious conservatives were none too happy either), and Trump muddled the waters further later that same week when he came out against the Arizona law that criminalized almost all abortions.

But Trump also appears to have identified a relatively safe space on the issue. Democrats are already arguing vociferously that Trump should be held responsible for Roe’s overturn, which may be their strongest case to centrist voters this fall. But new polling last week showed that allowing states to make their own laws was favored by half of registered voters and opposed by only 35 percent. While a majority of Democrats and independents favor nationwide protections, sizable minorities of both groups indicated their willingness to accept a state-by-state alternative.

Trump still faces a sizable challenge in the abortion debate. Most voters think that Dobbs was wrongly decided: the Biden campaign is determined to hang that decision around Trump’s neck. And the poll also points to a valuable opportunity for Biden on this issue, as more voters blame congressional Republicans for ending abortion rights than Trump. But while Trump will never win over committed pro-choice voters, his position could provide him some protection with voters with less intense feelings on the issue.

No matter what Trump says or does, abortion will be his greatest political weakness in this campaign. But the former president is making clear efforts to mitigate that weakness, which is considerably more than Biden has done to reach out to the political center on immigration. The politics for Biden are complicated, as he cannot afford an unmotivated base in November. But few would have predicted that it would be Trump who would expend more effort to protect his flank on his most vulnerable issue.

Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his webinar "Politics In The Time of Coronavirus." Or read more of Dan’s writing at:

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Isaiah Anthony, Deputy Blog Editor (Center bias).

Photo Credit: REUTERS via New York Post