Two thousand attendees at the National Pro-Life Summit cast their votes on Saturday for their favorite prospective GOP nominee for president in 2024. The winner is: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. It was the first 2024 straw poll conducted among anti-abortion voters, one of the Republican Party’s most loyal voting blocs.
DeSantis banked more than half of the votes cast, 53.73 percent. Former President Donald Trump placed in a distant second with just 19.22 percent. His former deputy, Mike Pence — who has called often for a national ban on abortion — took home roughly eight percent. Those three were followed by former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, with 1.57 and 1.37 percent, respectively. Everyone else — Kristi Noem, Greg Abbott, Glenn Youngkin, Liz Cheney, Larry Hogan, and Tim Scott, in that order — earned less than one percent of ballots cast. About seven percent of the poll’s voters remain undecided on their preferred would-be candidate.
The results are more evidence of what has been a slow and at times bitter breakup between the former president and the anti-abortion movement that embraced his candidacy in 2016 and 2020. “There is a wide variety of candidates the pro-life movement can get behind, and that’s exactly what we intend to do,” Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life, a co-sponsor of the summit, tells Rolling Stone.
The poll’s function is twofold: to take the temperature of a key GOP constituency while igniting a pressure campaign on anyone considering jumping in the race. “We’re in a position as a movement, thanks to a strong pro-life platform that’s been in place by the GOP, to demand action from candidates,” Hawkins explains. “Our candidate surveys ask right up front what they’re willing to do when they say they’re ‘pro-life.’”
“Checking the box and saying you’re ‘pro-life’ isn’t sufficient” in this “new era,” she adds.
Grassroots activists are keeping a close eye on how Republicans champion their demands. At Friday’s March for Life on the National Mall — the first of the post-Roe era — several expressed frustration with the GOP-controlled House. The chamber passed two anti-abortion measures in its first week of legislating, but they were largely symbolic votes meant to telegraph abortion as a top priority of the new Republican majority. GOP lawmakers also failed to include the demand that drew protesters to D.C. this week: a national abortion ban. “They do a lot of talking and not a lot of action,” says Laura Brown, a March for Life attendee from Milwaukee. “I want them to practice what they preach and be brave,” adds Christina Johnson, who traveled from Ohio. “If they’re ‘pro-life,’ they need to mean it when they say it.”
Activists are increasingly unsure Trump, the only Republican to formally declare his candidacy, is willing to further advance their goals, Saturday’s poll results confirm. Trump, who once identified as pro-choice, fully embraced the anti-abortion movement as a candidate, before going on to appoint three of the six Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe. Now, as members of the movement are looking beyond Roe, tension is building between Trump and the evangelical leaders and anti-abortion activists who once supported him. As Stephen Imbarrato, a Catholic priest and a co-founder of Men’s March for Life who attended Friday’s event, puts it, the gulf between the former president and voters who identify as “pro-life” is “getting larger.”
Trump, for his part, has deemed it a “sign of disloyalty” that anti-abortion groups have so far failed to line up quickly behind his campaign. “Nobody has ever done more for [the] right to life than Donald Trump,” he declared during a radio appearance last week. Students for Life and Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America (SBA) are two of the prominent groups that have stayed on the sidelines so far, waiting to see which other candidates emerge — and how far those candidates are willing to go to advance the groups’ political goals.
Trump seems to have little appetite for further bans or restrictions. Earlier this month, he laid the blame for Republicans’ disastrous showing in November squarely on “the abortion issue,” which he said, “lost large numbers of voters.” SBA responded with a pointed statement — and, in an early signal of a brewing schism, Pence retweeted it, with a curt “[w]ell said, @SBAProLIfe.”
To some in the movement, none of the would-be 2024 hopefuls — including De Santis — go far enough. Imbarrato wants a candidate who believes personhood begins at conception and recognizes that right as enshrined in America’s founding documents. “There’s nobody,” he says. “Not Pence. DeSantis is so strong on other issues, and so weak on abortion — he needs to do something to show he’s serious.”
DeSantis signed a 15-week abortion ban into Florida law last April and recently suggested he would support a more restrictive six-week ban. The impact of such a law would be devastating to abortion seekers. Before Dobbs, Florida had one of the highest abortion rates in the country. Now, surrounded on all sides by states that have outlawed the practice, it has become a critical point of access for millions of women across the Southeast.
Results of the straw poll show not everyone is disenchanted with Trump — a sentiment echoed among some March for Life attendees on Friday. “He did a lot for life in office,” says Anna Bingman, who traveled from Ohio for Friday’s march, noting Trump’s three appointees to the Supreme Court. A young woman in a “Make America Great Again” says she thinks Trump would still be a champion for abortion bans if he were reelected. “He spoke at a March for Life and he talked about it from the White House,” she explains.
But it is DeSantis who is the unequivocal early favorite among voters at the National Pro-Life Summit — a distinction may only increase pressure on the Florida governor to pass harsher restrictions. If marchers were certain of anything on Friday it was that the end of Roe was just the beginning: they want to see politicians doing much, much more. “There’s a portion of it that’s a celebration,” says Brian Gibson, an activist from Minnesota, “but a portion isn’t because abortion remains legal in so many parts of the country.”