2018 midterms

How Will the Kavanaugh Fight Affect the Midterms?

Will Kavanaugh save Republicans, or do their prospects depend on the long-standing propensity of old white people to show up for midterms? Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

When Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations about Kavanaugh first came to light, it’s safe to say the conventional wisdom was that the ensuing battle might well strengthen an already strong pro-Democratic trend among college-educated women, who are already more likely to participate in midterm elections than other voters, and who are crucial in many suburban House districts where Republicans are in danger of losing seats.

After the dual testimonies of Ford and Kavanaugh last week, however, there have been signs — some anecdotal, some empirical–that conservative voters were not only rallying to the judge’s banner, but were being “energized” for the midterms to an extent that a presumed Democratic advantage in “enthusiasm” might disappear. Conservative opinion-leader Hugh Hewitt raised the familiar battle-cry of “Remember ‘16!”:

A vast swath of the public has concluded that the Democrats sat on an explosive charge until the last minute, and they imagine themselves being ambushed that way at work. They don’t want their daughters and sons to live in a society where allegation is conviction …

Media elites locked inside “blue bubble” newsrooms don’t see, hear or feel it. Just as they didn’t see, hear, or feel the 2016 volcano’s rumblings either.

Nate Silver took a long look at the hypothesis that Kavanaugh is waking up Republican voters just in time to stop the “blue wave,” and concluded that there may be a pro-Republican trend in the short term, but that the polls now are back to where they were when Kavanaugh was first nominated:

From a 35,000-foot view, the story in the generic ballot numbers is largely one of stability. If you want to be more precise, however, the trend in the generic ballot now depends on what point in time you’re comparing against. The GOP’s current deficit on the generic ballot, 8.0 percentage points, is a bit worse than it was before Kavanaugh was nominated, when it was 7.4 percentage points. It’s slightly better than it was when Ford’s name was disclosed, however, when it was 9.1 percentage points, or since just before last week’s hearings, when it was 8.6 percentage points.

Trump’s approval ratings have largely followed the same trajectory as the generic ballot, having slumped in early-to-mid September and since rebounded slightly. 

In other words, the overall advantage Democrats enjoy going into the midterms has not been significantly affected. But there could be some variations in particular places — e.g., a pro-Democratic nudge in those suburban districts with anti-Kavanaugh leaning college-educated women, or a pro-Republican nudge in some redder territory with pro-Kavanaugh leaning white working class voters. It’s all a bit murky, and there’s also a good chance that if Kavanaugh is confirmed soon — which looks likely at the moment — whatever effect he is having on the midterms will fade as Election Day nears (keeping in mind that early voting has already begun in six states, and will begin in seven more next week).

Silver raises another point, though, that is often forgotten in these debates over “enthusiasm” and turnout: Democrats have been fighting all year to overcome a built-in GOP advantage in non-presidential elections based on the higher proclivity of older white voters to turn out:

Currently, we’re showing that likely voter polls are only about 0.4 percentage better for Republicans than registered-voter polls. That’s much smaller than the typical gap between likely- and registered-voter polls, which usually favors Republicans by anywhere from 1 to 6 percentage points in midterm years, reflecting that Democrats tend to rely on minority and young voters who don’t always turn out at the midterms. It is, however, slightly improved for Republicans from the numbers we were seeing earlier this year, when there wasn’t any gap at all on average between registered- and likely-voter polls.

The “midterm falloff” handicap for Democrats was a big factor in their terrible showings in 2010 and 2014, at a time when the alignment of the two parties with demographic groups likely (older white voters) and unlikely (younger and minority voters) to vote had become much more exact than in the past.

What is happening right now may have less to do with Kavanaugh specifically than with pro-Republican voters who have typically shown up for midterms waking up and smelling the coffee. Indeed, one byproduct of the Kavanaugh fight may be to convince some voters locked into a Fox News information cocoon to disregard the “red wave” happy talk they’ve been hearing from the president and his cheerleaders, and understand there are real stakes in this election.

In any event, the two parties’ battles over turnout are about to get large and bloody. And Brett Kavanaugh will be just one weighty symbol that each side uses to bludgeon the other.

Will the Kavanaugh Fight Affect the Midterms?