WASHINGTON — Twenty years after George W. Bush won re-election with the help of ballot initiatives that rallied voters around a popular cultural issue, Democrats are dusting off his playbook and attempting a similar strategy to keep Donald Trump out of office.

In 2004, Bush’s team seized on popular opposition to same-sex marriage, with strategist Karl Rove encouraging allies to put initiatives to ban it on ballots in key swing states, hoping to stir up voters and enable the president to ride the measures’ coattails to re-election. It worked.

George Bush and Joe Biden in 2001.
Then-President George W. Bush with then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., at bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders at the White in 2001.Mike Theiler / AFP via Getty Images file

Now, President Joe Biden’s allies are seizing on fury over the end of Roe v. Wade and putting abortion rights on the ballot in swing states like Arizona and Nevada, as well as red-leaning states like Florida and Montana, where pivotal Senate seats are up for grabs.

“It is the exact same strategy we employed in 2004 on culture wars — in reverse,” said Mike Madrid, a political strategist who worked on Bush’s re-election bid. “Culture wars used to be the place Democrats went to die. That’s not the case anymore. They win on these issues.”

Culture wars used to be the place Democrats went to die. That’s not the case anymore. They win on these issues.

Mike Madrid, political strategist

The goal: Register and turn out Americans who are passionate about abortion rights and reap the rewards in presidential and congressional races. Abortion rights have already proven to be a boon to Democrats in the 2022 midterms and special elections since Roe was overturned that summer.

In 2004, Madrid said, Rove understood that Republicans were “scraping the bottom of the barrel” with historically Democratic-leaning white rural voters. They needed to rev up evangelicals and find new voters. So he secured ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage in swing states at the time, like Ohio and Arkansas, to highlight the contrast with a Democratic Party that was divided on the issue. Voters overwhelmingly supported the anti-gay-marriage ballot measures, and Bush carried those states to a narrow victory.

“That was a very big part of the strategy,” said Madrid. “You find both new voters and bring in crossover voters.”

Today, he said, abortion could provide similar fuel for Biden and Democrats, galvanizing irregular or new voters and courting primarily “white, Republican, college-educated women who vote against the party because of the loss of abortion rights.”

Seeking to build upon a still-unbroken ballot-measure winning streak since Roe fell, Democrats and progressive groups are eyeing abortion-rights ballot initiatives in Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri, Montana, Arizona, Nevada and Arkansas. Proposed amendments have already been finalized for November in New York and Maryland, where the legislatures control the process.

“It’s going to help [Democrats]. There’s no question. Will it deliver Florida? No,” Madrid said, though he argued abortion rights ballot measures could deliver Arizona or Nevada. “Even in reddish North Carolina or Georgia, with that base, if you get a few points of Republican women, that’s the whole game.”

‘More benefit to Biden than there was to Bush’

Sara Fagen, a senior strategist on Bush’s 2004 campaign, said the ballot initiatives on same-sex marriage helped Bush that year — and abortion will help Biden even more this fall.

“Bush was not underperforming his base at all. Biden is dramatically underperforming his base,” Fagen told NBC News. “They’re going to need every angle to get their base motivated and turned out. And this is among the best issues they have to turn out, particularly, young women.”

She said cultural issues are powerful turnout vehicles for constituencies that aren’t excited about the candidates.

“Turning voters out is hard. A huge percentage of people who are registered don’t vote. Some of them are evangelicals. Some of them are pro-choice women. And so people who don’t love the candidates, or aren’t motivated by the candidates, do get motivated by these specific issues,” Fagen said. “There’s more benefit to Biden than there was to Bush, just because of the importance of the issue to voters.”

After the end of Roe v. Wade, she added, “abortion is a much more salient issue than I think gay marriage was in 2004.”

Ezra Levin, the co-founder of Indivisible, a progressive advocacy group collecting signatures for the Arizona initiative, said putting abortion on the ballot will “supercharge” volunteers, motivate the Democratic base and appeal to swing voters.

“We’ve seen in the past the power of strategically placed ballot initiatives to define what the election is about and boost turnout,” Levin said. “By getting popular abortion rights referenda on the ballot this year in battleground states, Democrats can boost base turnout and bring skeptical swing voters over to their side.”

In Montana, a red state, an emerging abortion ballot measure could help Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in a race that both parties see as potentially decisive to Senate control.

The measure already on the November ballot could also help Democrats in Maryland, where, despite its status as a reliably blue state, moderate former GOP Gov. Larry Hogan’s entrance into the Senate race has made the election competitive.

“Independent voters will be thinking about abortion rights when they head to the polls — and they’ll vote for both that ballot initiative and the Democratic candidates who support that,” Levin said, calling it an effective way to “deprive Donald Trump and MAGA of power in November.”

Could abortion hand Democrats Arizona again?

The best opportunity for such a measure to juice turnout for Democrats could be in Arizona, where the proposed amendment — which would create a “fundamental right” for abortion care until fetal viability — would effectively undo the current 15-week ban.

In 2020, Biden won the hotly contested state by just 10,457 votes. This year, there’s also a key Senate race likely to pit Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego against Trump-aligned Republican Kari Lake to take retiring independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s seat.

Underscoring that landscape was an appearance in the state Wednesday night by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — a Biden campaign co-chair who signed laws repealing many of the remaining restrictions on abortion care in her state — during which she highlighted abortion rights as one of, if not the most, decisive issues in the presidential race.

“If we have Donald Trump a second term, all of our progress in Michigan, all the work that you’re doing here in Arizona is at risk. A national abortion ban will wipe out all of those strides,” she said at a Phoenix campaign event.

Responding to a question about whether she’s concerned Arizona voters might vote for abortion rights but against Biden, Whitmer said it’s her job to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“My concern is that people think that it’s been settled. And that, you know, maybe they don’t need to vote at the top of the ticket for President Biden. My job is to remind people that this very much is in flux. We know that the Republicans want a national abortion ban, we know that they want to rip these rights away,” she said.

Trump, for his part, has bounced around on the issue. He is quick to take credit for building the conservative majority on the Supreme Court that overturned Roe. But he has criticized Florida’s six-week ban while also voicing support for abortion restrictions without taking a clear position.

Challenges in Nevada and Florida

In Nevada, legal and political nuances limit the potential impact of ballot measures to help the Biden campaign or Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., who faces a tough re-election bid against presumptive Republican challenger Sam Brown.

Abortion rights are already shielded in Nevada until fetal viability, and advocates want to beef up protections in the state constitution to make it harder for it to be outlawed in the future. Under state law, voters have to pass a proposed constitutional amendment in two consecutive elections, so even if the measure passes in November, it would have to do so again in 2026.

“We actually have more of a steep, uphill climb in properly conveying the stakes” to Nevada voters, a prominent reproductive rights advocate in the state said.

“Ultimately, there are some statutory protections here, so we have to make the case that these constitutional protections will be impactful, which we know they are. But to voters, I actually don’t think it’s as clear,” the organizer said. “For voters, it’s likely more motivating when the stakes are more clear. So if they have abortion bans at stake or enforced currently, that’s going to obviously be a lot more motivating to voters.”

On the other hand, just two years ago, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto eked out an 8,000-vote victory over GOP challenger Adam Laxalt. Exit polls indicate the abortion issue helped her.

Prospects of meaningfully increasing turnout are more dubious in Florida, which has trended red in recent years as Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio won re-election by crushing margins in 2022 while campaigning as abortion foes. The Sunshine State’s strong GOP has amassed an advantage over Democrats of nearly 1 million voter registrations — which limits the possibility that abortion rights measures will be a deciding factor amid a political sea change in the state’s top-of-the-ticket races.

The Biden campaign is nevertheless leaning into the contrast on abortion rights and touting the ballot initiatives, even arguing that the Florida measure could make the state “winnable” for Biden.

“Make no mistake, Donald Trump will do everything in his power to try and enact a national abortion ban if he’s re-elected,” Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez told reporters. “The only thing standing between Americans and a national abortion ban is Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the White House.”

Meanwhile, Trump said Tuesday that his campaign will finally address the issue of abortion “next week.”

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