Supreme Court Fight Isn’t Guaranteed Game-Changer

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 20, 2020 · 7:05 AM EDT

While Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death will go down as yet another historic event in 2020, it’s unlikely to change the fundamental trajectory of the elections.

In the middle of huge breaking news stories, it can be hard to remember that the country is incredibly polarized and the race between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden has been remarkably stable.

After a series of other historic events including impeachment, global pandemic, economic crisis, national conversation about racism, and high-profile instances of violent protests, Biden’s 7-point national advantage is about the same as it was six months ago, according to Inside Elections’ latest Presidential Snapshot in Time series
That means when it comes to analyzing the electoral impact of events, it’s best to assume that nothing matters until proven otherwise. It’s a difference between historic events and political game-changers. 

It’s easy to imagine a Supreme Court vacancy as the great interruptor, particularly to a group of journalists, analysts, and politicos looking for a fall surprise. But it’s less clear exactly how it will move a significant number of voters in a different direction.

Trump is an incredibly polarizing figure. According to the new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 52 percent of national likely voters disapprove of the president’s job performance, including 46 percent who strongly disapproved. Another 43 percent of likely voters approved of Trump’s job performance including 33 percent who approved strongly. Opinion surrounding the president has hardened and everything he touches becomes a partisan issue, including sports, beans, and the color of baseball caps.

More qualitatively, people triggered by the Supreme Court were probably already planning to vote and had made up their mind about who they would vote for before Ginsburg’s death. It’s unlikely there are many “soft” Supreme Court voters.

There’s also the question of timing, and whether just the renewed focus on the high court because of the vacancy is supposed to persuade voters or the specific nominee, hearings, vote, and confirmation.

Most of the recent confirmations have taken at least 60 days and there are less than 50 days before the elections. But if the process takes at least a month, it’s likely that tens of millions of votes will already be cast before a confirmation vote takes place. That could dampen the political impact in either direction.

While the initial narrative surrounding the vacancy suggests Trump could benefit by energizing base Republican voters who were said to already have been energized, or a change in the topics of the day, the impact on individual GOP senators is less clear. 

The GOP’s Senate majority was at significant risk before Ginsburg’s death and it remains vulnerable afterward. 

Republicans can only afford to have three senators vote no on a new justice, putting a lot of pressure on Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine. They’re the only two GOP senators running for reelection in states Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. They can’t afford for their races to get turned into simple partisan fights in states Trump is not going to win, but they also can’t afford to lose any GOP voters who might defect if they get in the way of Trump getting another justice confirmed. 

They aren’t the only Republican incumbents who could feel uncomfortable. Four years ago, Trump carried Arizona, Iowa, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas, but all of those states are battlegrounds, putting more pressure on Martha McSally, Joni Ernst, David Perdue, Thom Tillis, and John Cornyn than what might have been expected a year or so ago. 

Virtually all, if not all, of the GOP senators up for reelection this year will vote to confirm a Trump Supreme Court appointment because they remember what happened to Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire or Nevada Republican Joe Heck in 2016, when they backed away from Trump and lost their Senate races. 

McSally’s special election race in Arizona might be the most important of all. If the White House and Senate Republicans can’t get their act together by Nov. 3 (or decide a lame duck vote is politically advantageous) and she loses, Democrat Mark Kelly could be sworn in early, giving Republicans one fewer vote in a potential lame duck session. That race is currently rated Tilt Democratic.

The bottom line is that it’s OK to wait for subsequent survey data to see if the Supreme Court fight is making a difference. But be skeptical that it will.