Plenty of explanations have been offered for Donald Trump’s narrow victory in the Electoral College last week. The FBI’s egregious intervention eleven days before the election; media coverage that equated Hillary Clinton’s non-scandals with Trump’s brazen mendacity; speculation about Clinton’s various imperfections as a candidate; the economic and cultural anxieties of white working-class voters; and straight-up racism, misogyny, and fear. But it’s difficult to understand Trump success—or indeed any of these secondary explanations—unless you understand the politics of abortion.
Trump—who described himself as “very pro-choice” in the late 1990s—was never a likely prospect to win the hearts of evangelical voters. For this very reason, perhaps, he did not simply check the box opposing abortion, as Republican politicians have traditionally done. He backed up his newfound anti-abortion conviction with a promise to flip the Supreme Court. At Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition conference back in June 2016, he held up a list of potential Justices as if he were selling shiny new bonds for a casino development. “These judges are all pro-life!” he assured the crowd, touting hard-right anti-abortion foes like Steven Colloton of Iowa and Raymond Gruender of Missouri. Then he went on to choose as his running mate Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who must rank as one of the most socially conservative politicians in the country.
Exit polls suggest that this strategy paid off big-league. Trump racked up a higher percentage of white evangelical voters than either Romney or Bush—an astounding 81 percent to Clinton’s 16 percent. He also did much better than anticipated among white Catholics—60 percent to 37 percent. And he managed to capture nearly one in five Latino votes.
According to an ABC News exit poll, 21 percent of voters said the issue of Supreme Court appointments was the most important factor in determining how they voted, and 57 percent of those people went for Trump. That means that one out of every four Trump voters voted with the Supreme Court in mind, and it’s a safe bet that a very substantial number of those see the Supreme Court through the lens of abortion politics.
The role of abortion politics in holding on to Latino voters deserves special scrutiny. While the Pew Research Center found that “Hispanic Catholics and Jews were firmly in Hillary Clinton’s corner,” evangelicals have been aggressively courting Latinos, and post-election investigations confirm the impact. Helen Aguirre Ferré, a former Trump critic turned supporter, told NBC News that “[t]he campaign found heavy support among Hispanics who are concerned about abortion, particularly among Hispanic Christian evangelicals, including Puerto Ricans in Florida’s I-4 corridor; a growing number of [whom] are becoming evangelicals.”