How Biden’s campaign plans to pummel Trump on abortion

The reelect is going to spend the next half year publicizing the testimonials of those affected by harsh new state abortion laws.

Amanda Zurawski introduces President Joe Biden at a ”Reproductive Freedom Campaign Rally" on January 23, 2024, in Manassas, Virginia. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s campaign plans to hammer Donald Trump for his role in erasing abortion rights largely by enlisting ordinary American women who have suffered from restrictions on the procedure, elevating their voices in place of the president’s own.

This approach was immediately on display this week in a Biden campaign video featuring the story of a Texas woman released after Trump announced he would defer to state-level abortion laws, some of which impose draconian limits on women and physicians. Biden himself made no appearance in the ad, except to deliver a standard campaign finance disclosure line.

The strategy represents a kind of concession that Biden, with a complicated history on the issue and a reluctance to even say the word abortion, may not be the most resonant messenger on the issue for many voters, and that spotlighting regular people has the potential to reach those who may not start out sympathetic to the president’s campaign.

“It’s less important for Biden to be the messenger on this, and more important for our folks who can talk personally about the impact this has already had in their lives,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder of the Democratic political group Run for Something. “This is not abstract for them. That is more compelling than anything Biden can say or do.”

The focus on first-person storytelling is inspired in part by recent down-ballot successes in states like Ohio and in Kentucky, where Gov. Andy Beshear last fall won a difficult reelection campaign in a conservative state by tying his Republican challenger to conservative policies on reproductive health.

Biden advisers took particular note of an ad Beshear ran in the closing stages of his campaign featuring the testimonial of a woman, Hadley Duvall, who had been raped and impregnated by her stepfather when she was a child, and who would have been forced to carry the pregnancy to term under policies favored by Kentucky Republicans, including Beshear’s opponent.

Eric Hyers, a Democratic strategist who managed the Beshear campaign, said Duvall’s message had echoed across Kentucky, including in constituencies that do not ordinarily lean to the left.

“The voters who moved the most when hearing messages like Hadley’s were the opposite of the voters you might think,” Hyers said. “It was rural voters, male voters, older voters, Republican voters, non-college educated voters.”

In other words — the kinds of voters who Biden, and Democrats broadly, struggle with the most.

Beshear won 17 of Kentucky’s 85 rural counties last year, an improvement over the 13 rural counties he won in 2019. Hyers credited some of that movement to abortion not only playing as a turnout mechanism — activating base Democratic voters in urban areas — but also as a persuasion tactic that could draw in Independent and Republican-leaning voters.

The Biden campaign has since deployed similar tactics, airing an ad earlier this year featuring a Texas woman denied an abortion even after learning her baby had no chance of surviving birth.

Monday’s ad spotlighting another Texan, Amanda Zurawski, featured her tearfully recalling the loss of her baby, interspersed with a description of the life-threatening conditions she faced after miscarrying and being denied a medically necessary abortion.

“Donald Trump did this,” the end of the ad reads.

The minute-long video — which was released within hours of Trump’s announcement — is part of a broader $30 million advertising push and will air in battleground states. And it offered one of the clearest views to date of how Democrats are plotting to use what could end up being hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising aimed at tying Trump directly to the harshest abortion limits in the country.

Biden campaign aides plan to make such “testimonial"-style ads with a range of women and families a fixture of their abortion messaging, anticipating Republicans’ ongoing push for limits to reproductive rights will give them plenty more opportunities to seize on voter anger ahead of the election.

Since March, a majority of the TV ads from the Biden campaign mentioned abortion, a Biden campaign adviser confirmed. They also noted that their abortion-focused ads will heavily feature Trump’s own words, tying him to appointing the Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade.

“Trump, who has tried to constantly change his position on abortion — the Biden campaign has to really tag him with his own words,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic strategist who led EMILY’s List. “And we have plenty of ammo to do that because we know he wants to outlaw abortion.”

Advisers insist the abortion focus will intensify in the months ahead. Zurawski is slated to appear alongside Kaitlyn Joshua, a Louisiana woman who says restrictive abortion laws prevented her from getting medical care for a miscarriage, at Biden campaign events in North Carolina on Thursday and in Wisconsin next week.

The campaign is just one entity expected to invest heavily in abortion-related messaging. A constellation of Democrat-aligned groups focused on women and reproductive rights — including EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood and abortion rights group Reproductive Freedom for All — are aiding efforts to link Trump to the rollback of reproductive freedoms.

As they chart out the campaign, these groups must contend with the role Biden himself will play in delivering their arguments. The president has made for an awkward messenger on abortion at times. He has repeatedly promised to restore Roe v. Wade, if given the chance, and this week issued a pair of blistering statements aimed at Republicans’ support for restricting abortion. But in person, Biden has shown some discomfort in talking about the issue and struggled on occasion to bring himself to say the word.

“Joe Biden is of a certain generation, and he is, in many ways, not the most active spokesperson on this issue in the Democratic Party,” said Mini Timmaraju, president of Reproductive Freedom for All. “He’s the president who was here when Roe fell, and he has done everything he possibly can do to respond and we have full confidence that he will do the job, if we can send in a congressional majority, to fix this at the federal level.”

Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, an abortion rights organization, said it was “wonderful abortion storytellers are given such a platform.” While usually she wouldn’t want anyone to usurp a woman telling her own story, let alone an 81-year-old white man, she said there was more of a role for Biden to play: “I think it would be more effective to hear from the president himself.”

Biden on Monday did ultimately record a video in which he reacted to Trump’s statement while pledging to restore Roe. He later addressed it at a fundraiser. But some Biden allies argue that the party’s most effective messaging on abortion may not end up requiring the president at all. Democrats have held a clear advantage on the issue since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. The challenge, they contend, is ensuring voters remain fired up over the consequences of that rollback.

President Biden has made for an awkward messenger on abortion at times. | Evan Vucci/AP Photo

“The messenger in how we talk about this matters in showing voters that this is not for politicians to decide — this is for people, and people are going to be deeply hurt and impacted by this and already are,” said Molly Murphy, a pollster for the Biden campaign. “It makes the choice very real, rather than hypothetical.”

In research from prior state-level races, Democratic operatives and pollsters said, little resonated more for voters than hearing anti-abortion Republicans articulate their own positions — and then seeing individual women and families describe the personal fallout of those policies.

And as the presidential race enters its main stretch, the Biden campaign anticipates it will have plenty of material to work with. Trump’s decision to advocate leaving abortion limits to the states left him exposed to multiple avenues of attack. The steady stream of state-level restrictions and legal disputes in the meantime, one campaign adviser noted, means the number of women and families affected in some way by those limits is only guaranteed to grow.

“Trump says this should be up to states. Now Arizona makes it completely illegal, says that doctors can go to jail,” said Hyers. “So this is what that means. It’s about the real-world implications.”