From the Center
Donald Trump has made a career out of playing with other people’s money. In addition to the sizable financial stake that his father gave him to get started in the real estate business, Fred Trump habitually bailed out his son after bad investments during his lifetime. Trump has bragged about being a self-proclaimed “king of debt” who relied on banks and other investors to front his biggest business deals. And despite his considerable wealth, Trump’s campaigns have been funded by a generous coalition of wealthy contributors and small-dollar donors.
But last week, when he discussed his feelings about abortion law in a post Roe v. Wade world, Trump took a tremendous risk. If it pays off, he might be president again. But if not, the political capital he spends will be his own, and none of his backers will be able to cover his losses.
In his recent interview on Meet The Press, Trump criticized rival Ron DeSantis’ six week abortion ban as “a terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” He promised to negotiate a compromise between pro-choice and pro-life advocates, a strategy that sounds like capitulation to most religious conservative voters. And when asked if he would sign an abortion ban if elected, the former president said, “It could be state or it could be federal. I frankly don’t care.”
The Trump who first ran back in 2016—and who needed Mike Pence as his running mate to reassure social conservatives that he could be trusted—would not have survived such an interview. Telling evangelical voters and other pro-life voters that he doesn’t care about how an issue so close to their hearts would be resolved would be a political death blow in itself. But opposing a six-week ban and committing to negotiations after the Supreme Court’s ruling would have outraged the GOP base even more.
But that was seven years – and three court appointments – ago. This Trump is understandably confident of his standing with social and cultural conservatives, and given his immense lead in polling for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump apparently decided that he had the luxury of beginning to reposition himself for a general election campaign. For all his bluster and bravado, Trump understands that abortion is an issue that can hurt him with swing voters, especially women who supported him when Roe was still the law of the land. So he tends to tiptoe on this topic in a way that he would never bother with immigration or criminal justice policy.
Trump’s interview may also help him in New Hampshire, whose economically conservative voters tend to be more centrist on social issues. His team knows that if he wins both of the first two states, it will be almost impossible for any of his rivals to hope to stop him. So the temptation to move to the middle is clear. Winning just one of those two, on the other hand, would send the race into South Carolina in a much more unsettled way.
If the nomination is in fact already wrapped up, and if religious conservative voters are on board no matter what, then Trump’s positioning might make sense. But the Iowa caucuses are still almost four months away, and Hawkeye State history shows that voters there are notoriously fickle – caucus history contains numerous examples of late-rising (and late-stumbling) candidates. Trump currently leads the GOP field there by historic margins, but Midwestern weather in January greatly advantages the most passionate caucus-goers. In Iowa, those voters are also the most religious.
Trump has ample time to “clarify” his remarks, should his support on the right begin to slip. But in 2016, he did not give more traditional conservative opponents like Ted Cruz and Mark Rubio even the tiniest opportunity to suggest that his conservative credentials were anything less than entirely reliable. But popular GOP governors like Kim Reynolds of Iowa and Brian Kemp of Georgia have already pushed back hard against Trump’s comments, and if evidence emerges showing any slippage, others could follow more easily.
Both in business and politics, Trump has always enjoyed portraying himself as someone who fights against long odds to achieve improbable victories. But he has always been protected by the generosity of others (or, in 2016, by the awareness that no one expected him to win, so he could not be blamed for defeat). So these are the highest stakes he has ever faced, with no safety net in sight.
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).