Turning Out the Pro-Choice Vote

(Photo: AP/Susan Walsh)

Protesters rally outside the Supreme Court on March 2, 2016.

A week out from Election Day, perhaps no state is more closely watched than Pennsylvania. The neck-and-neck Senate race between incumbent Republican Pat Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty has already won the title of most expensive senate race in U.S. history, with more than $118 million spent by the end of September. Democrats need to net four seats to win control of the Senate, and more than $87 million in outside spending has already poured into Pennsylvania’s race.

With 20 electoral votes, the state is also critical for the presidential contest. Though Pennsylvania hasn’t elected a Republican for president since the 1980s, the GOP controls the state legislature, and residents in more conservative parts of the state have particularly responded to Donald Trump’s promises to boost manufacturing and coal and natural gas production.

With the state’s rural regions increasingly Republican, and big cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh voting reliably blue, the political outcomes on Election Day will turn largely on the Philadelphia suburbs, where voters tend to have higher incomes, higher levels of education, and higher turnout rates. While historically Republican, these communities have been trending Democratic in recent years.

This fact isn’t lost on Planned Parenthood, which has spent $30 million across six swing states this year to elect Democratic pro-choice candidates. Deirdre Schifeling, the director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, says that of their six states—Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—Pennsylvania is where they’ve waged their largest effort.

Though the Republican Party has spent the last six years demonizing Planned Parenthood, polls consistently reveal strong support for the 100-year-old group. A recent Politico-Harvard poll even found that 48 percent of self-identified Trump supporters back Planned Parenthood.

This past weekend I headed out with Planned Parenthood volunteers in the Philadelphia suburbs to witness their get-out-the-vote efforts firsthand. The volunteers convened Saturday morning at their campaign office in downtown Philadelphia, where the office walls were decked with signs reading “NASTY WOMEN VOTE” and kindred sentiments.

I headed out to Glenside, a suburb in Montgomery County, with two Temple University students. Luke Robinson, a senior, and Paige Hill, a junior, have both been extremely active on their campus during this election, and both attended the Pennsylvania Senate debate their school hosted in October.

The homes the two had been assigned to canvass were ones that Planned Parenthood had deemed to house either undecided or infrequent voters. Difficult though it was for me to imagine how anyone could actually be undecided this late into the election, at door after door, we encountered folks who were truly undecided—either about the presidency, the Senate, or both. And most were willing to explain why.

Barbara Brown, a 58-year-old hairdresser, said she had really wanted Hillary Clinton to win in 2008, and supported her first presidential campaign.

“But then the world changed, ISIS came,” she told us. Brown decided to register as a Republican, and backed Ohio Governor John Kasich for president. She feels the Obama administration is not doing enough to deal with ISIS, and worries Clinton will just follow Obama’s lead.

“The one I trust is Hillary, I just don’t know if she’ll do her own thing in office,” Brown said. “I don’t think I’ll know who I’m voting for until I drive over on Election Day.”

One woman, upon hearing Paige and Luke were volunteers with Planned Parenthood, said she had no interest in talking to them. But when we continued on down the street to the next door, the woman, Piper Lowell, chased us down the sidewalk, with no shoes on. Saying she recognized that we probably don’t have much opportunity to hear from pro-life Democrats, she invited us back into her home to talk.

Lowell told us she’s truly undecided on both the Senate race and the presidency, and feels frustrated that anti-abortion voices are not made to feel welcome within the Democratic Party. She pointed to Democratic Senator Bob Casey Jr., who opposes abortion, as the kind of voice that gets marginalized. Bill Clinton, Lowell said, was better than his wife when it comes to making space for dissenting views, citing his “safe, legal, and rare” abortion rhetoric. “She is just not an impressive candidate,” Lowell said firmly.

That said, Lowell’s top priority is to make sure that Trump “does not sit in the chair of Abraham Lincoln” and she told us she would check the polls right up to Election Day to gauge how much of a lead Clinton has. A New York Times/Sienna College poll released Thursday found Clinton winning Pennsylvania by seven points. Lowell said if she felt confident enough that Clinton would win without her vote, “then she would vote her conscience.”

Nearly all the doors we knocked on were Planned Parenthood supporters though, and a few even said they hadn’t known that Pat Toomey voted to defund the organization seven times throughout his six years in office.

A year ago, many believed that reproductive rights would be a major issue in the election. Given the possibility that the next president would appoint one or more Supreme Court justices (this was before Anton Scalia died) and with the Court yet to rule on Texas laws that restricted the number of facilities where abortions could be performed, the progressive universe was busy figuring out how to effectively raise awareness about the stakes for reproductive rights in 2016. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson was comparing a woman’s right to choose to supporting slavery, and Marco Rubio, then an elite favorite, was saying he wanted to ban abortion with no exceptions for rape and incest.

Access to reproductive health care has been a major issue this election (Hillary Clinton came out in support of overturning the 40-year-old Hyde Amendment and the Democratic Party platform calls for Hyde’s repeal for the first time ever), but nobody anticipated a year ago that the Republican nominee’s bragging about sexual assault would also turn out to be a galvanizing issue.

Trump’s denigrating and abusive stances toward women seem to be taking a toll on voters, especially in the suburbs. A Bloomberg Politics poll conducted in early October, after the release of the Trump tapes, found that more than 80 percent of suburban Pennsylvania voters said they were bothered by the video that showed him bragging about assaulting women, compared with 60 percent of voters statewide.

“I’ve talked to both men and women who say they lean Republican, or they vote both ways, but they’re all thinking about the effects Trump’s rhetoric has on their children, specifically their daughters,” says Gabby Weiss, an organizer with NARAL Pro-Choice America, who is working in Pennsylvania. “So many folks on both sides of the aisle have mentioned it’s their daughters that they’re thinking about, sometimes even bringing their daughters to the doors when we canvass them.”

One of the questions facing the Clinton campaign has been whether to treat the Republican presidential nominee as a wild exception to the norm, or a logical extension of the GOP’s rhetoric and policies. At times, Clinton has sought to pin him as representative of the party. “Donald Trump didn’t come out of nowhere,” she said in March. “What the Republicans have sown with their extremist tactics, they are now reaping with [his] candidacy.”

But as Buzzfeed first reported, a DNC memo sent in May revealed that the campaign pivoted midway through the election, deciding to no longer link House and Senate Republicans to the Republican presidential candidate. For the next several months, Clinton rarely talked about Republican ideology, and zeroed in exclusively on Trump’s positions, temperament, and character. This fall, however, Hillary Clinton has tried to swing back in the other direction, implicating other Republicans in her attacks on Trump.

This vacillation could partly explain why, despite Clinton’s seven-point lead in Pennsylvania, the state’s senate race is still a complete toss-up. Pat Toomey has been careful to not take a hard position on Trump’s candidacy, in the hope of winning over moderates who may split their votes and still keep his party’s base by his side. Planned Parenthood staffers told me many Pennsylvania voters they’ve met with hadn’t even known that their state has never before elected a female senator.

In 2012, Barack Obama won the presidency with the largest gender gap in history, winning women by 12 points despite losing married women to Mitt Romney by four points. (Married voters in general have tended to vote for the GOP.)

This time around, though, there’s evidence that more married households may be splitting their votes. An NBC News Poll released on October 4 found that 48 percent of married women supported Clinton, compared with 35 percent of married men. The poll was conducted even before the release of the Trump tapes. In a recent interview with Slate, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake says that Democrats have been specifically targeting married women this election cycle, encouraging wives to make up their own minds about whom to vote for.

In the third and final presidential debate of this election, Hillary Clinton expressed passionate support for both Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to choose. A CNN focus group of undecided voters in Nevada found this to be the part of the debate that viewers liked the most.

Planned Parenthood is working to make sure that such sentiments put Hillary Clinton in the White House, and that other candidates who seek to restrict access to reproductive health care pay the price.

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