Why Did Planned Parenthood Supporters Vote Trump?

A series of maddening focus groups suggest Clinton made it easier for voters to reconcile themselves to Trump.

Clinton / Planned Parenthood
Hillary Clinton addresses the Planned Parenthood Action Fund on June 10.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

Shortly before the election, Politico and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health surveyed voters on health care policy. One of the survey’s findings was that 48 percent of people who were planning to vote for Donald Trump supported continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood, compared with 47 percent who did not. Nevertheless, now that the election is over, stripping Planned Parenthood of federal support is a key Republican priority.

Earlier this month, Planned Parenthood convened a series of focus groups across the country to better understand people who back the organization but cast their ballots for Trump. Now bracing for an unprecedented legislative attack, Planned Parenthood wanted to know more about the intensity of its support among Trump voters and about how well these voters had understood Republican plans when they went to the polls. On Wednesday, Planned Parenthood made recordings of the 90-minute focus groups—held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Phoenix; Las Vegas; and Milwaukee—available to a group of journalists.

For opponents of Trump, the recordings make for excruciating viewing. They show how myths about Hillary Clinton’s corruption proved more influential than facts about Trump’s. “I really didn’t trust Hillary at all, and that’s why I went with Trump,” said a new mother in Harrisburg who’d been undecided until the last moment. “He’s more honest than her.” Some of the conversations make clear the role sexism played in the election. “I didn’t know if I was ready for the first woman president,” said a pretty, pregnant blonde 27-year-old woman in Phoenix. “I know how emotional I am, so … “ But if they’re maddening, the focus groups are also revelatory. They suggest that the Clinton campaign made a fatal mistake in depicting Trump as outside the bounds of normal conservatism. Clinton’s camp had hoped that doing so would lead Republicans to defect. Instead, it helped some people who distrust conservatism to reconcile themselves to Trump.

Besides the four focus groups of Trump voters, Planned Parenthood also held additional focus groups in Phoenix and Milwaukee with a mix of Trump and Clinton voters. The Trump-only focus groups are more interesting, however, because they show Trump voters speaking unguardedly without fear of being stigmatized as racist or sexist.  The moderator stayed neutral throughout and never revealed that Planned Parenthood had commissioned the focus groups.

Some of the men were less supportive of Planned Parenthood than indifferent and opposed defunding it because it seemed like a misuse of political energy. “It’s important to what, 2.2 million roughly?” asked a divorced 46-year-old in Phoenix. “It’s a very small percent of our population as a country. Why are we focusing on such a small issue?” The women, however, tended to be strongly protective of the organization. Several of them had relied on it, which isn’t surprising; Planned Parenthood has cared for as many as 1 in 5 American women. “You feel safe when you’re in the Planned Parenthood lobby, because the people around you are dealing with similar things,” said a recent college graduate in the Trump-only focus group in Milwaukee. “Despite what people think because of the media, they’re there to help a woman make good choices for her body,” said a mother of four in Harrisburg.

In Phoenix, two middle-aged women in the Trump-only focus group said they wouldn’t support him for re-election if he signed away funding for Planned Parenthood. “It’s a deal-breaker,” said an earthy 58-year-old in a plaid work shirt. “It will rob women of basic fundamental rights. I’m talking about female health care, which includes abortion. Which includes birth control. I think birth control is the greatest gift that they gave for womankind.” Added a 44-year-old, if Trump attacked Planned Parenthood, “I’d be pissed off as hell.”

This leads to an obvious question: If these women think defunding Planned Parenthood is a deal-breaker, why did they vote for a candidate who promised to do exactly that? After all, in a September letter addressed to “Pro-Life Leaders,” Trump pledged to strip Planned Parenthood’s federal funding unless it stops performing abortions. But many of the people in the focus groups didn’t know he’d made this assurance, and those who did didn’t take it seriously. It seemed as if Trump’s lasciviousness, which Clinton hoped would disqualify Trump with women, actually worked in his favor. The focus group participants couldn’t imagine that Trump would enact a religious right agenda. “He’s probably paid for a few abortions himself,” said the 58-year-old in Phoenix, eliciting a roomful of laughs.

In several focus groups, the moderator asked if people expected Trump to veto a defunding bill, and most hands went up. The new mother in Harrisburg pointed out that Trump avoided social issues in the campaign: “That was never Donald Trump’s platform.” Said a Phoenix man in his 30s: “I think this is coming from the bible-thumper mentality. I don’t see Trump having that mentality, but [Mike] Pence, Paul Ryan, those guys, it’s like they call up God from their cellphone. They’re so out of touch with reality.”

If so, they’re not the only ones. The majority of people in the focus groups knew little about the intense social conservatism of people Trump has surrounded himself with. Shown a document listing Vice President–elect Pence’s legislative history on reproductive rights, a 54-year-old man in Phoenix said: “I’m astounded. I guess I’ve been living in a bubble. I wasn’t aware of this. He sounds like a tyrant when it comes to this.”

It’s far from certain that these people, or others like them, will turn on Trump when and if he goes after reproductive rights. If the reality of his plans didn’t penetrate during the campaign, there’s no reason to think the reality of his policies will penetrate afterward, at least for those who aren’t directly and immediately impacted. If support for Planned Parenthood was a serious priority for these voters, they wouldn’t have voted for Trump in the first place. Nevertheless, there is a lesson here. If Democrats ever want to regain power, they don’t need to wedge Trump away from the Republican Party. They need to yoke him to it. These voters might be OK with Trump talking about grabbing women by the pussies. What they didn’t know is that they were voting for the federal government to do it.