CLEVELAND–“You don’t have to go in there!” a woman shouted as three men in suits approached the entrance to FirstEnergy Stadium in downtown Cleveland on Tuesday. “Don’t you want to think about your decision? There’s help for you!”
The men walked in confusedly, the joke apparently lost on them.
Eight women—all dressed in purple, one on stilts—were stationed outside “Life of the Party,” an anti-abortion event organized for delegates in town for the Republican National Convention.
“We’re doing sidewalk counseling!” Ashley Underwood, project coordinator at NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, told me. “We’re doing what they do to so many women at abortion clinics all across the country."
Inside the arena, around 200 people drank iced tea and coffee while waiting for Phyllis Schlafly, the iconic ultraconservative who founded the Eagle Forum and the Republican National Committee for Life, to take the stage.
She didn’t. Schlafly, who is 91, simply rose from her seat to deliver brief remarks about the Republican platform (“I recommend it as the best platform ever,” she said) and her endorsement of Donald Trump.
Schlafly was early to board the Trump train. Her supporters at the event, though, did not universally share her enthusiasm.
“I want to be able trust him. He says he’s pro-life and I want to believe it,” Jayne Gardner, who was in town from New Mexico with her husband and son, both delegates, told me.
Ted Cruz was her first choice. “But I really appreciated Melania’s speech last night, and I sat down after hearing her and thought, I want that to be true. I really do.”
I didn’t go to an anti-abortion luncheon expecting to meet Ted Cruz holdouts and Trump agnostics, but I probably should have.
For conservative voters who consider abortion to be a major concern this election—both in terms of federal policy and pending Supreme Court nominations—Trump is an unreliable candidate.
In 1989, the Republican nominee was the co-sponsor of a dinner for NARAL Pro Choice America—the national abortion rights group that, in a bit of full-circle symmetry, happened to be part of the protest outside the "Life of the Party" event.
As The New York Times reported in 1989, Trump ultimately did not attend the dinner after receiving death threats from anti-abortion activists. (One sign of how things have changed for Trump: he was recently endorsed by Troy Newman, a man who once said that someone who killed an abortion provider should have been able to argue it was a "justifiable defensive action.")
A decade later, Trump told NBC’s Tim Russert that while he had personal qualms about abortion, he remained steadfastly pro-choice.
“I hate the concept of abortion. I hate it. I hate everything it stands for. I cringe when I listen to people debating the subject,” he said. “But you still—I just believe in choice.”
This was then a common position among Democrats, and Trump was, after all, a Democratic donor at the time.
His supposed change of heart on abortion took place at some point before he flirted with another presidential run in 2011, as he explained to Megyn Kelly during an early Republican debate:
And what happened is friends of mine years ago were going to have a child, and it was going to be aborted. And it wasn’t aborted. And that child today is a total superstar, a great, great child. And I saw that. And I saw other instances.
More recently, Trump said he would “absolutely” change the Republican platform to include exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. That change never actually made it into the platform, but the mere suggestion of it left an impression on the anti-abortion movement.
“The suggestion that the platform should weaken its position on the pro-life issue would set back years of hard work in the pro-life movement,” Tom McClusky, vice president of March for Life Action, told Politico at the time.
Back at the "Life of the Party" event, some attendees spoke of Trump as a means to an end.
Jessica Koehler, 23, who works with Ohio Right to Life, framed her support for Trump as a political calculation about the Supreme Court, an argument that mirror's what I've been told by some Bernie Sanders supporters who have moved reluctantly over to Hillary Clinton.
“When we’re looking at this, we’re looking at who gives us the best chance of getting pro-life policy or Supreme Court nominations,” she said. “And Donald Trump has at least agreed to do those things.
She originally backed Marco Rubio.
“This is what we have,” she told me. “These are our options.”