Inside Planned Parenthood's $30 Million Ground War to Stop Trump-Pence

How an army of thousands could tip the balance in as many as half-a-dozen swing states

Along with Planned Parenthood Votes, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, led by president Cecile Richards, has been leading a major effort to target swing state voters. Credit: Jennifer Graylock/Getty

Planned Parenthood is mounting one of the largest door-to-door field campaigns of the 2016 election, working to persuade millions of voters to defeat the extremist, anti-abortion ticket of Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Its army of hundreds of paid staff and thousands of volunteers could tip the balance in as many as half-a-dozen swing states, where the Trump campaign barely counts field offices, much less a sophisticated ground game.

Aiming to reach three million voters across six states, the $30 million campaign has twice the budget of Planned Parenthood's largest previous field effort, in 2012. "Access to safe and legal abortion and access to reproductive health care is on the ballot this year like never before," Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, tells Rolling Stone.

"Donald Trump wants to overturn Roe, and appoint Supreme Court justices who will do that. He has said that he would like to punish women who have abortions. And he's picked, as vice presidential candidate, Mike Pence – a man who has made it his life's mission to do exactly those things," she says. "We are taking that very seriously."

The Republican ticket's extreme anti-abortion ideology was showcased at the vice presidential debate Tuesday evening. Pence, the governor of Indiana, said that his approach to public policy on abortion is faith-based and "proceeds out of that ancient principle that God says, Before you were formed in the womb, I knew you."

On the campaign trail, Pence has (accurately) framed the presidential election as a fight that could determine control of the Supreme Court for the next 40 years. He promises voters that the landmark 1973 decision guaranteeing women the right to choose will be overturned under a Trump presidency, insisting, "We'll see Roe v. Wade consigned to the ash heap of history where it belongs."

Pence himself has a track record as one of the most anti-choice politicians in America. As governor, Pence signed perhaps the most draconian abortion law in the country – later blocked by a federal judge – which outlawed abortions for even devastating genetic defects and mandated that miscarried fetuses be buried or cremated by a funeral home. Pence, who helped launch the Republican war on Planned Parenthood during his career in the House, has also succeeded in shutting down several Planned Parenthood clinics in rural Indiana, precipitating an HIV epidemic.

At Tuesday's debate, Pence – in a performance marked by bald lies – distorted Trump's disturbing statements on abortion. "Donald Trump and I would never support legislation that punished women who made the heartbreaking choice to end a pregnancy," he claimed. Clinton running mate Tim Kaine turned on him, asking, "Then why did Donald Trump say that?" Pence responded that Trump had threatened women with criminal sanction for abortion because "he's not a polished politician."

Kaine pressed further: "Why don't you trust women? Why doesn't Donald Trump trust women to make this choice for themselves?" Pence did not answer directly, saying only that society is judged by its treatment of the "unborn" and adding, "I couldn't be more proud to be standing with a pro-life candidate in Donald Trump."

The Planned Parenthood ground war is jointly run by the group's political arms, which don't receive taxpayer money: Planned Parenthood Action Fund is a "social welfare" organization, structured as a 501(c)(4) under the tax code – like the NRA, for example – and does not disclose its donors. Planned Parenthood Votes is a super PAC that does reveal its funders, including (in a twist sure to make social conservatives howl) billionaire George Soros and his extended family, who have contributed at least $3.5 million.

The Planned Parenthood campaign is active now in six swing states – Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Planned Parenthood tells Rolling Stone that the ground campaign is ramping up to 800 paid staff and 3,500 volunteers, focused on door-to-door outreach to targeted swing voters. These are prominently middle-aged suburban women, but also include many men for whom a candidate's opposition to basic reproductive health care access is a dealbreaker.

The size of the Planned Parenthood door-to-door army is extraordinary. Though not an apples-to-apples comparison – because hundreds of Clinton-supporting field staff are paid by the Democratic Party – consider that the Clinton campaign itself counted fewer than 800 people on payroll in its September FEC filing. "We are running the largest persuasion canvas in the country on the independent side, to give you a sense of scale," says Schifeling.

The wall-to-wall spectacle of the 2016 campaign has left many swing voters in the dark on crucial policy differences between the candidates. "They don't actually know that Donald Trump has pledged to make abortion illegal," Schifeling says. "They don't know that Hillary Clinton faced down all of Congress as a senator to make sure emergency contraception was available to victims of sexual assault."

Despite high-profile Republican efforts to demonize Planned Parenthood, the group remains an effective messenger – and remarkably popular among actual voters. A recent PPP poll of swing state voters finds that between 59 and 66 percent view the group positively. Schifeling says that resonance makes it easier, in many cases, for Planned Parenthood representatives to strike up a conversation with swingable voters than it would be for the Clinton campaign to do so directly. (Despite Clinton's lead in many swing state polls, her personal favorability rating remains mired in the low 40s.)

The persuasion campaign is already producing results. "At the doors, what we're finding is that 30 percent of the voters are undecided before we have a conversation with them," Schifeling says. "And when we talk to them, they move."

The Planned Parenthood ground war is designed to dovetail with the Democratic campaign to take back the Senate, which will hinge on tight races in many of the same swing states. "These elections are so close. These Senate races are within one point. The presidential campaign in many of these states is within the margin of error," Schifeling says. "We think these three million voters are going to make the difference. In a lot of these states, they are going to be the margin of victory."

Watch Donald Trump comment on the potential recriminalization of abortion. Watch here.