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How Planned Parenthood won the Republican primary

Sure, Trump wants to defund Planned Parenthood. But his refusal to demonize them shows the limits of the campaign against the group.
Pro-choice protesters hold pink Planned Parenthood banner and signs in Foley Square, New York, Sept. 29, 2015. (Photo by Andy Katz/Pacific Press/ZUMA)
Pro-choice protesters hold pink Planned Parenthood banner and signs in Foley Square, New York, Sept. 29, 2015.

Among the ways Donald Trump has departed from his party’s line, one has gone relatively unnoticed: his refusal to demonize Planned Parenthood. Even as he vows to strip it of federal funding for contraception and sexual health services because Planned Parenthood affiliates perform abortions, Trump has insisted the organization also does “wonderful things.” 

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At the outset of the primary race, Republican voters had their pick of Rick Santorum (who said Planned Parenthood should be prosecuted), Mike Huckabee (who implicitly equated the group with the shooter who killed three people outside a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood), Rick Perry (who presided over some of the most zealous defunding of Planned Parenthood in Texas), John Kasich (ditto in Ohio) Ted Cruz (who led the drive to shut down the federal government over Planned Parenthood funding), Jeb Bush (who said Planned Parenthood is “not actually doing women’s health issues”), Rand Paul (who proclaimed “there’s no reason in the world we have to fund Planned Parenthood at all”), Marco Rubio (who claimed Planned Parenthood offering fetal tissue donation “created an incentive for people to be pushed into abortion”), Chris Christie (who said of prioritizing defunding the group because it performs abortions, “I can't think of anything bigger than that”), Ben Carson (who peddled the debunked myth that Planned Parenthood targets black neighborhoods), and Carly Fiorina (who falsely claimed Planned Parenthood was keeping fetuses alive to harvest their brains).

The voters passed. Instead, Republican voters lined up behind a man who said of Planned Parenthood, “I have a lot of respect for some of the things they do, the cervical cancer on women.”

While Trump’s statements on Planned Parenthood don’t explain why he won, it is nonetheless notable that his refusal to demonize an organization anti-abortion groups consider responsible for genocide was no deal breaker for a majority of primary voters. 

Not that Trump's opponents didn't try to make it a deal beaker. In the waning days before the Indiana primary, Cruz said, “Donald can’t criticize Hillary Clinton on Planned Parenthood, because he agrees with her. They both say it’s terrific and—and that it should keep taxpayer funding."

That's not true. Hillary Clinton told Fusion she wants to expand funding to Planned Parenthood. Trump has repeatedly said he would strip Planned Parenthood of its funding — none of which goes to abortion — as long as it continues to provide abortions. Regardless, Indiana voters, whose governor Mike Pence led the initial charge against Planned Parenthood when he was in Congress, did not care. Nor did enough voters care that anti-abortion groups urged them towards almost anyone but Trump. 

Trump's relatively mild line on Planned Parenthood has been attributed to his daughter Ivanka, whom he has also credited with helping him push back at charges that he is anti-woman. Last August, Trump told Sean Hannity that after Jeb Bush questioned whether women's health needed to be funded at all, "I said, ‘Wow, that's incredible, that's a really stupid statement to make,’ and Ivanka is so much into that whole issue of women's health and women, and she's my guide on that whole subject, but she understands how I feel about it.” In its profile of Ivanka Trump, The New York Times cited an unnamed source close to Trump saying she had "successfully convinced her father to maintain his qualified support for Planned Parenthood in the face of Republican criticism." 

Perhaps that's because even after an onslaught of secretly-recorded videos accusing Planned Parenthood of illegally trafficking in fetal tissue, or as Republican hopefuls repeatedly put it, "baby parts," Planned Parenthood remains very popular. An NBC News/WSJ poll conducted a month after the videos surfaced showed that Planned Parenthood was more popular than any other entity polled, more than the NRA, more than Barack Obama. A month later, another NBC News/WSJ poll found that six in 10 Americans opposed denying Planned Parenthood federal funds.

RELATED: Culture wars cost red states in more ways than one

Planned Parenthood says that's because, by its count, 1 in 5 women have visited their facilities at least once and formed its own conclusions. Subsequent investigations into Planned Parenthood over the videos have resulted in no charges for anyone but the anti-abortion activists who made them. They were indicted in Texas in an investigation that was supposed to bring down Planned Parenthood. That, too, may have also defused the videos' impact beyond the most committed anti-abortion voters. 

A total opposition to Planned Parenthood among Republicans is a relatively new phenomenon. In 2012, Barack Obama battered Mitt Romney for trying to defund the group, pointing out that the last Republican president didn't hold that position. "George Bush never suggested that we eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood," Obama said. Even then, the most incendiary statement Romney made about Planned Parenthood was far milder than the denunciations offered by almost all the Republican presidential candidates this year: "Planned Parenthood, we're going to get rid of that." That quote made its way into Obama's second campaign ad of the cycle, and the attack line was credited with helping Obama turn out and win with unmarried women.    

Trump's position, while identical to Romney's, is clouded by his repeated praise of Planned Parenthood's non-abortion services, giving the impression he is more moderate on the issue than his stated policy preference. 

Trump's victory, despite showering kind words on the bete noire of the anti-abortion movement, suggests that the movement is less powerful among the Republican electorate than has been previously suggested. The leaders of that movement repeatedly said Trump was an unacceptable pick, even before he told Chris Matthews that women who have abortions should be punished under a future ban, a seriously off-message statement Trump abruptly backed off of.

"On the issue of defending unborn children and protecting women from the violence of abortion, Mr. Trump cannot be trusted," said movement leaders in a January statement signed by heads of the Susan B. Anthony List and the Concerned Women for America, among others. 

That was then. This week, some of those groups, according to what they told the Washington Times, are falling in line behind Trump. Mallory Quigley, spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List, who did not respond to MSNBC's request for comment, cited Trump's support for defunding Planned Parenthood and a federal ban on abortions after 20 weeks.  She said, “We’re expecting Trump to be a man of his word and follow through, just as he would on any issue.”