Abortion will likely be on the ballot in Arizona, but it’s not yet giving Biden a boost

Biden’s campaign and allies are seeking to close the gap between support for a proposed abortion rights amendment and support for the president in the swing state.

PHOENIX — Jenny Valdovinos is the type of voter who represents the dilemma President Joe Biden is facing in the crucial swing state of Arizona.

The 22-year-old Latina graphic designer knows she’ll definitely be turning out in November to vote for a proposed amendment to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution, if it ends up on the ballot as supporters believe it will.

But when it comes to Biden, whom she voted for in 2020, she’s not convinced.

“Biden didn’t really do much or live up to as much as he was saying,” said Valdovinos, who lives in Phoenix. She added that he “hasn’t been saying or doing” enough on an array of issues, including environmental protections, the economy and the ongoing war in Gaza.

Valdovinos underscores a broader problem in Arizona for Biden, who, like Democrats up and down the ballot in many other states, has leaned hard into supporting reproductive rights.

That has so far largely been a winning strategy for Democratic and liberal candidates, who in the nearly two years since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, have won races across the U.S. by touting their support for abortion rights. And abortion rights supporters have won ballot measure campaigns in every state — including deeply red areas like Kentucky and Kansas — where the issue has appeared directly before voters in the post-Roe era.

It’s a dynamic that likely bodes well for the proposed constitutional amendment in Arizona, which would protect abortion rights up until fetal viability, but one that hasn’t yet extended to Biden in a state he narrowly carried four years ago.

A recent CBS News/YouGov poll showed former President Donald Trump leading Biden among likely voters 52% to 47% in Arizona. Meanwhile, 65% said they would vote in favor of a constitutional right to abortion.

There are several reasons why this split is playing out, according to interviews with strategists, pollsters and reproductive rights activists.

Many note that while Arizona went blue in the 2020 presidential election for the first time in 24 years, Biden carried it by only 10,500 votes, and registered Democrats still lag behind registered Republicans and independents in the state.

Further, they point to polling that has shown that Republican and independent voters are prioritizing other issues, including the economy and the border.

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And finally, they say that six months ahead of the election is too early in the cycle to have an accurate read on how the likely ballot measure could boost Biden.

Reproductive rights groups working with the Biden campaign in Arizona told NBC News they’re aware of the challenges the president faces in the state and have a plan to win over more voters — especially when it comes to further touting his stance on abortion rights.

“It’s not enough to just have an abortion measure on the ballot. The candidates themselves have to spend more time leaning into it, talking about their support and what they would do,” said Reproductive Freedom for All President Mini Timmaraju, whose group (formerly known as NARAL Pro-Choice America) is working to advance the ballot measure and to turn out voters for Biden this fall. “I think it’s harder for President Biden, because there’s a general part of the population that doesn’t pay close attention to this until we get closer to the contest.”

Added Jacques Petit, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign in Arizona: “The Biden-Harris campaign and Democratic coordinated campaign aren’t taking any support for granted, which is why we have dozens of staff members on the ground in Arizona reminding voters just how high the stakes are for reproductive freedom.”

Warning signs for Biden

One major part of the challenge facing Biden is that, even though reproductive rights have made headlines in the state for months after a near-total ban on abortion from 1864 was reinstated, polling shows that voters care about many other issues in addition to abortion rights — and that many feel Trump is better positioned to handle them.

A New York Times/Siena College poll released this month found that 64% of registered Arizona voters said abortion should “always” or “mostly” be legal, compared to 27% who said abortions should “always” or “mostly” be illegal. The poll found that more Arizona voters, 48% to 37%, said they trusted Biden over Trump on the issue of abortion.

But they said they trusted Trump more than Biden on the other two issues asked about in the state: the economy (61% to 34%) and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (53% to 33%).

A March Wall Street Journal poll revealed similar findings: 59% of registered Arizona voters supported abortion access in all or most cases, compared to 36% who said they think abortion should be illegal in all or nearly all situations. It also found that voters felt Biden would handle the issue of abortion better than Trump, 45% to 33%.

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But it was the only issue of eight on which Biden had a clear advantage over Trump. Both polls also found Trump leading Biden overall.

“Democrats know abortion is a ‘good issue,’ but here’s the problem: It’s leaning up against inflation, border security, which are, hands down, the top two issues for independents in Arizona,” said Mike Noble, the CEO of the nonpartisan polling firm Noble Predictive Insights.

In Arizona, 29% of voters are registered as Democrats, compared with 35% who are registered as Republicans and 35% who are registered for an array of independent or “other” parties — meaning a Biden path to victory must again rely on his ability to earn the support of Republicans and independents.

The abortion rights amendment was thought to be the perfect device to facilitate that crossover. While similar measures are poised to appear on the ballot in other states this November, Arizona has been singled out by reproductive rights activists as the state where it could most likely help the top of the ticket.

But that success is not guaranteed this year.

“We’re trending toward supporting Democratic candidates, but this is not a Democratic state,” said Samara Klar, a University of Arizona public policy professor and an expert on the state’s political dynamics.

Organizers behind the Arizona ballot measure have signaled reluctance to align closely with the Democratic brand — and the Biden campaign — saying that they need to work to reach a broader bloc of voters.

“We’re happy to have anyone and everyone talking about our ballot initiative, regardless of their political affiliation. We think it’s important, because it gets our message out there,” said Chris Love, a spokesperson for Arizona for Abortion Access, the group behind the amendment effort. “Our focus is to talk to the broadest cross section of Arizona voters possible, because we need all of those people in order to win in November.”

“The Democratic Party is speaking to their audience, but our audience is broader. And so while we’re appreciative of every mention, we’re trying to keep it as open as possible and really talk to Arizonans about freedom to make personal health care decisions, full stop,” Love added.

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Bridging the gap

The Biden campaign and allied reproductive rights groups are working to bridge the gap between support for the campaign and support for the ballot measure.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have visited the state a combined three times just since March, including an appearance by Harris in April just after the state Supreme Court revived the 1864 abortion ban.

Meanwhile, a cohort of reproductive rights groups and campaign surrogates, from inside and outside Arizona, have swarmed the state in recent weeks, talking to voters about the stakes of the 2024 election specifically through the lens of abortion rights.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visited in April for an event specifically about abortion rights, while many Democratic state lawmakers have held events in their districts designed to highlight Biden’s pledge to protect abortion rights and how Trump appointed three of the Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe.

“Defining Trump and making sure folks hear from Trump in his own words” are moves that “pop immediately” with voters, Timmaraju said. “It gets harder to explain what Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have actually done [on the issue] — and they have done quite a bit — but it’s not as easy to explain as, ‘Here’s a video of Trump bragging about overturning Roe.’”

But, she added, “we have to be more aggressive about sharing” the contrast.

Her group — which has endorsed the Biden campaign and is a member of the coalition pushing for the ballot measure — has already started knocking on doors for both causes and will ramp up those efforts over the summer.

Other campaign surrogates said the key to a Biden win includes listening to voters’ concerns on the many other issues they’re worried about outside of abortion.

“It’s important we don’t dismiss the other concerns that constituents have regarding the border and regarding the economy, because Democrats do have good solutions,” said Democratic state Sen. Eva Burch, who made headlines in March after she openly discussed on the chamber floor how she’d had an abortion.

“We have to make sure that we are messaging that just as importantly as we are the abortion issue,” she added.

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