Why the 2024 election is about far more than Trump’s legal nightmare

CNNIt’s not only about Donald Trump’s courtroom dramas.

As the ex-president tries to ride a narrative of personal political persecution through his criminal trial quagmire back to the White House, other substantial political forces are gathering that could be equally critical to November’s election.

Political drama from Washington to North Carolina and California on Tuesday highlighted an already intense campaign ahead of a rematch between the presumptive Republican nominee and President Joe Biden. A trio of events in those states also showed that in an election that could hang on several hundred votes in a handful of swing states, almost any issue that gains traction among voters could be decisive.

In Washington, the US Supreme Court heard a case about restricting access to a widely used abortion drug, mifepristone, which is also used to manage miscarriages. The hearing injected the widening reverberations from the court’s overturning of the constitutional right to an abortion into the center of another election. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, meanwhile, opened a new assault on Trump over health care, while trying to make a play for North Carolina. And independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. named a running mate – adding to fears among Democrats he could syphon votes away from Biden in November.

The expanding campaign is also laying bare a contrast between the sitting president and his rival.

While Trump has turned his presidential bid into an arm of his legal defense in multiple cases and will spend weeks sitting in courtrooms, Biden has used a post-State of the Union tour of battleground states to roll out a more conventional campaign. He is targeting key sectors of the Democratic coalition – from college-educated voters to Latinos and blue-collar workers to Black voters. And he’s implicitly arguing he’s making Americans’ lives better while Trump is consumed by his web of criminal and civil legal complications.

A new front in the abortion fight

“My body, my choice!” pro-abortion rights activists chanted outside as the justices held one of their most consequential oral arguments of the term. The hearing was the latest in a string of legal fights that show that the ramifications of overturning Roe v. Wade in 2022 didn’t end with abortion. The justices’ decision helped pave the way for the Alabama Supreme Court ruling last month that frozen embryos are human beings – which has led to the pause of some IVF treatments in the state.

While the justices seemed inclined to allow continued access to mifepristone on Tuesday, the fact the case reached the top bench shows how a conservative shift in the judicial system engineered under Trump has the capacity to change life in the US.

After the Dobbs decision electrified voters who stalled a red Republican wave in the 2022 midterms, Biden is leveraging the issue – and Trump’s recent floating of a 15-week national ban on abortion – to try to invigorate Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans again. “Donald Trump killed Roe v. Wade,” Biden warned Tuesday, accusing his predecessor and the conservative high court majority he built of sowing chaos.

Hours after the Supreme Court hearing wrapped, Democrats had a new reason to believe their focus on abortion rights will be successful in November. Marilyn Lands, who had run on reproductive rights in an Alabama state House special election, won an open seat that had previously been held by a Republican. The result won’t affect the balance of power in the deep red state, but her message clearly resonated following the controversy over frozen embryos.

The Biden campaign was quick to react, putting the blame for lost fertility treatments squarely on Trump and warning that voters had sent the ex-president and “extreme MAGA Republicans a clear message: they know exactly who’s to blame for restricting their ability to decide how and when to build their families and they’re ready to fight back.”

Can Biden put a Trump state back on the electoral map?

As the justices retired to consider an opinion expected in the summer, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris held a rare joint appearance in North Carolina – a key state they’re hoping to peel away from Trump this fall as the president plays defense in a handful of other battlegrounds, including his blue wall in the Midwest.

They’re seeking to build momentum behind an argument that if Trump and Republicans can consolidate total power in Washington, they will tear down benefits Americans have enjoyed for more than a decade under the Affordable Care Act. “There are extremists in our country, trying to take away health coverage, or make it more expensive,” Harris said in the state, which Biden lost by about 1 point in 2020 and is home to 16 precious electoral votes.

In California, meanwhile, another threat to Biden’s hopes of a second term was in the spotlight. Kennedy unveiled his running mate – Silicon Valley attorney and entrepreneur Nicole Shanahan. The move will boost Kennedy’s capacity to fundraise and to fight for ballot access in the general election. Many Democratic strategists fear that the environmentalist who has promoted anti-vaccine conspiracy theories could woo some Democratic voters disaffected with Biden’s presidency and let Trump back into the White House by default.

The same cliffhanger math applies to a race including Kennedy as it does to a two-way clash between Trump and Biden. Any small shift of voters in one direction could have massive implications for the destiny of the White House. Increasingly, Democratic strategists are warning that a vote for Kennedy is in effect a vote for Trump. “The only purpose of Robert Kennedy running is to be a spoiler. His goal is to take votes from President Biden to help elect Donald Trump, and we can’t let it happen,” Pennsylvania Democratic Lt. Gov. Austin Davis told CNN.

Trump on the defensive

Tuesday’s campaign developments follow another day of extraordinary drama in Trump’s staggering array of legal cases. On Monday, the former president won an appeals court battle that, at a minimum, delayed an attempt by New York state to begin seizing his assets to honor a civil fraud trial judgment against him worth more than $450 million. But Trump also vented fury after a judge set his criminal trial for April 15 in a case arising from a hush money payment to an adult film star.

The massive baggage that Trump will take into the general election may depend on whether he is convicted in the hush money case and whether three other trials – two over his 2020 election interference and one related to his hoarding of classified documents – survive his delaying tactics. The New York judge in the hush money case imposed a gag order on Trump on Tuesday, limiting what he can say about potential witnesses, among others, in next month’s trial.

There were fresh signs this week that Biden is becoming more aggressive in seeking to exploit Trump’s problems. His campaign, for example, seized on Trump’s angry news conference after his Monday court appearance to brand him as “feeble, confused and tired” – and therefore unfit for a return to the Oval Office. And in an aside that confirmed that Biden’s campaign also sees a chance to irk Trump with mockery, the president told guests at a fundraiser in North Carolina, “I’d be happy to compare physical characteristics … granted, I don’t have his orange hair,” according to journalists in the room.

Two flawed general election candidates

The ex-president used his indictments to build sympathy among GOP base voters in his race to the party’s nomination. But there’s also evidence in polls that some Republicans might balk at voting for him if he is convicted. And the persistent trend of significant numbers of Republicans voting for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in party primaries – even after she shelved her campaign earlier this month – hints at softness in Trump’s support.

But there’s also a question of whether Trump’s liabilities will be countered by Biden’s problems. Polls show majorities of voters question whether, at the age of 81, he’s fit to serve a full second term. (Biden road-tested a new quip on Tuesday as he seeks to deflect this worry with humor, telling an audience: “I know I’m only 40 years old, times two, plus one.”) The president’s approval rating – at 40% or lower – is in perilous territory for a commander in chief seeking a second term. Many voters, meanwhile, are driven to distraction by high prices for groceries that are masking strong economic performance in other areas like job creation.

The president is also facing down anger from progressives and Arab American voters over his support for Israel that could dent his standing in some swing states. Following the deaths of more than 30,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, Biden has been repeatedly interrupted at his events by voters angry at Israel’s assault on Gaza in response to last fall’s Hamas terrorist attacks. It happened again on Tuesday in North Carolina. And as protesters were led out, the president commented: “They have a point. We need to get a lot more care into Gaza.”

In recent days, relations have cratered between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the president hardened opposition to a planned Israeli offensive in southern Gaza. The rift is a sign that for his political aspirations, as much as for humanitarian reasons, Biden needs the war to end soon.

His vulnerabilities help explain why Democrats are banking so much on the abortion issue and why they will seize on events like Tuesday’s Supreme Court arguments and Trump’s equivocations on national abortion limits. The former president is trying to claim credit for the Supreme Court majority that overturned Roe while also trying to protect himself from a backlash.

Alexis McGill Johnson, the president of Planned Parenthood, said that abortion was already a decisive issue in the 2024 election. “We have seen abortion rights be on the ballot since the Dobbs decision, in earnest, nationally,” she told CNN’s Phil Mattingly. “Every state where we have had abortion ballot initiatives, reproductive freedom has won.”

Trump also appears to recognize his vulnerability on health care – at least after he seemed to walk into a Democratic trap while musing last year that he was looking for alternatives to President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.

Following Biden’s attacks on Tuesday, the presumptive GOP nominee took to his Truth Social site and insisted, “I’m not running to terminate the ACA,” while complaining that his rival “disinformates and misinformates all the time.”

But Trump renewed his familiar line that he would build something better and cheaper than Obamacare – a refrain he often used in his presidency while doing almost nothing policy-wise to construct an alternative system.