Why Republicans are in trouble: Trump and the abortion issue aren't going away

Analysis by Harry Enten of CNN

Donald Trump is now in a stronger position to win the 2024 Republican presidential nomination than he has been in months as his party rallies around him following his indictment by a New York grand jury on business fraud charges.

But actual results on the ground continue to suggest that the former president may not be good for the Republican brand among the general electorate.

On the day of Trump's arraignment in Manhattan, Democratic-backed Janet Protasiewicz celebrated victory in the Wisconsin Supreme Court election as liberals won control of the high court in the ultimate swing state.

That result is just part of a larger story in which Democrats and Democratic-backed candidates across the nation have been performing better in elections this year than Joe Biden did in their states or districts in 2020. And it potentially portends well for Democrats' 2024 fortunes.

Wisconsin lessons

The result in Wisconsin sums up the Republican problem. Biden won the state by less than a point in 2020, after Trump had carried it by a similar margin four years earlier. The Badger State is one of a handful that has voted for the winner in the last four presidential elections, and it is one of few that has a US senator of each party.

Protasiewicz's 11-point winning margin over her Republican opponent is a relative blowout compared with Biden's 2020 performance in Wisconsin.

We can also see the Democratic overperformance in Wisconsin in another Tuesday election, this one a state Senate election in the Milwaukee area. While not spoken about anywhere near as much as the state Supreme Court race, Republicans needed to hold the open seat to win a supermajority in the state Senate.

The Republican candidate did win, but only by 2 points. This marked a 3-point overperformance for the Democratic nominee as Biden lost the district by 5 points in 2020.

The Wisconsin results match up well with what we've seen so far in 2023 special election across the country.

In the lone federal special election so far this year, Democrat Jennifer McCllean outperformed Biden's 2020 margin in Virginia's 4th Congressional District by 13 points.

In the average of nearly 20 special state legislative elections, Democrats have done about 4 points better than Biden's margin, on average.

The president, of course, won the 2020 election, so the fact that the political environment looks to be better for Democrats now than it was then is a good sign for his party.

It also marks a big difference with what we saw in 2019 when Democrats in special elections were nearly on par with Hillary Clinton's 2016 margins. That came after Democrats overperformed Clinton in the 2018 midterms. It was a signal that the 2020 elections might be close.

President Biden.
Photo credit: Getty Images

An unpopular president

What makes the Democrats' strong showings this year especially odd is that they are occurring with Biden's approval rating stuck in the low 40s. Normally, you wouldn't expect an unpopular president's party to do so well in off-year elections.

This suggests that the factors currently at play are similar to those in the latter half of 2022. Following the US Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade halfway through the year, Democrats started to outdo Biden's 2020 margins in districts that held special elections.

And Democrats had a historically exceptional night in the November midterms. They more than held their own, despite Biden's approval rating being well south of 50 percent.

The midterm exit polls revealed that many voters who didn't like Biden or Trump voted Democratic. Almost all the key races in the states that will likely decide the presidency in 2024 went Democratic. Put another way, Biden wasn't the deciding factor you might have expected him to be among swing voters. Trump factored into their vote too, even though he wasn't president.

Neither abortion nor Trump seem to be going away as an issue in 2023.

Abortion was at the forefront of the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, with liberals hoping that a win by Protasiewicz would provide them with a majority to legalise the procedure statewide.

And Trump remains the clear favourite for the GOP nomination for president, despite his indictment and continuing unpopularity among the general electorate.

If those things don't change going into 2024, Republicans may be in big trouble.