Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s enormous legacy, coupled with the timing of the vacancy she leaves behind, has already made the fight to replace her politically momentous. Yet it may not have a direct effect on the outcome of the presidential election.
It is absolutely true that nothing motivates a party base like a battle over a Supreme Court confirmation. Indeed, many believe that the confirmation fight over Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 galvanized previously lethargic Republican voters in red states, enabling Senate Republicans to expand their majority by two seats, even as the party lost dozens of House seats in suburban seats.
My hunch is that the suburban congressional debacle would have come anyway. The Democratic base was already incensed by Donald Trump’s election. But the Kavanaugh confirmation gave Republicans the political equivalent of a B-12 shot, energizing their own base and yielding the bifurcated election results that followed.
Talking with pollsters and strategists in both parties since Justice Ginsburg’s passing reveals two points: First, they say that nobody knows the political ramifications of Ginsburg’s vacancy. Then they concede that it might not affect the presidential race much at all, given that both parties already were at DEFCON 1. It’s hard to crank the dial up much higher.
In a memo to clients and friends, former Clinton White House political director Doug Sosnik argues, “The death of Justice Ginsburg will further exacerbate the divisions in our country that have led to the tribal politics that define … our times.” Sosnik goes on to suggest that the Left is “clearly energized by the announcement that Trump plans to nominate a replacement next week for Justice Ginsburg, with ActBlue raising over $100 million in 38 hours following the announcement of the Supreme Court opening.”
At the same time, Sosnik predicts that “Republicans will also benefit from the coming Supreme Court fight. Trump needed a circuit-breaking event to change the dynamic of the race, which has clearly favored Biden so far. Up until now the election has largely been about the impact of the coronavirus on the health of the public and of the economy, and any day that’s the focus is a bad day for Trump. In the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll that was released ... Biden enjoys a 22-point advantage over Trump on who would do a better job of dealing with the virus.”
But will any of this change the state of the race? Given how impervious Trump’s numbers have been to developments (positive or negative), the threshold is very high. After all, even amid the greatest crisis our country has faced in generations and the sharpest economic decline since the Great Depression, nothing seemed to move his approval numbers beyond a narrow band. If six consecutive months of 50-year low unemployment didn’t get him above the high 40s in percentage points, and the revelations in Bob Woodward’s book or allegations of Trump referring to American war dead as “suckers” and “losers” don’t drop him below the 35-to-38 percent level, not much will.
In an analysis of the NBC/WSJ poll conducted just prior to Ginsburg’s death, Hart Research partner Jeff Horwitt wisely wrote, “The fundamentals of our country have been shaken to our core while the fundamentals of the election have not.” In January, Trump’s job approval rating was 46 percent, now it is 45 percent. His “feeling thermometer” (positive and negative views) was minus-8 then; now it’s minus-11. Biden’s feeling thermometer was minus-7, now it is minus-2, “the one place where there has been SOME movement.” The ballot test had Biden leading Trump 50 to 44 percent in January; now he’s ahead 51 to 43 percent.
Coming at it from a different direction, Republican strategist Bruce Mehlman, in his latest thought-provoking deck, lists “four concurrent super-disruptors" roiling the electorate: the "recession, [the] pandemic, mass protests, [and] intense elections."
Back up to 30,000 feet, Horwitt argues that, “This may not feel like a normal election and we may be unable to feel the passion and energy on the ground due to virtual conventions and far fewer rallies and in person events, but be assured voters are indeed paying close attention and interest in the election is at a record level. And this is even before October and the debates still to come. It may be hard to physically see and feel the passion that voters are feeling about the campaign in traditional ways, but Americans are certainly engaged and following the election which suggests incredibly high turnout.”
Many strategists seem to feel that the SCOTUS fight might hurt endangered Republican senators in blue-tilting states, such as Susan Collins in Maine and Cory Gardner in Colorado. In red states, however, the likes of Montana’s Steve Daines and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham could benefit from the heightened level of partisanship. We’ll see, but don’t expect the same type of effects on the top of the ticket.