John Anzalone was having a rare evening off from the presidential race, going out to a socially distanced outdoor dinner with his wife and another couple near his home in Montgomery, Alabama. He was already enjoying his first Paloma of the evening when the phone rang, and rang, and rang. He tried to ignore it but couldn’t. When he picked up, the caller on the line told him the news that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was dead at 87.
Anzalone, the chief pollster and a senior adviser for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, felt his heart sink. He was saddened by the news of a liberal lion of the court passing away and concerned that a presidential race that has seen his client maintain a consistent lead in the high single digits might suddenly be thrown into disarray.
But he also knew reporters would be calling all weekend to ask if this was going to be the earthquake that would shake up a race that had been stable since the spring — even as a pandemic killed 200,000 Americans and left segments of the economy in tatters. This supposed seismic event was coming on the heels of other seismic events: violent protests rocking Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Trump calling for “Law and Order” and tagging Democrats as allies of antifa. Anzalone’s phone burned up during those weeks, too, and the result was a presidential race that had tightened by only half a percentage point at the most.
“This doesn’t change the fundamentals of this race,” he said. “It just changes the headline.”
In my conversations with nearly a dozen pollsters and strategists for both parties working on the presidential race and on tight Senate races around the country, this was the consensus view. In the waning days of a presidential race that is already moving at a million miles an hour, the prospect of Trump seating a sixth conservative justice over Democratic objections is unlikely to hurt or help either side very much.
“I still think the country is going to be consumed by coronavirus, by the recovery, by the economy, by jobs,” said John McLaughlin, a pollster for Donald Trump. “This is on the agenda, and I think it is going to consume Washington, but I think people are a lot more interested in other things.”
Still, in a tight race — and despite Biden’s national polling lead, several pathways remain for Trump to eke out a win in the Electoral College — even small advantages can matter in big ways. Back in 2018, after Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy retired and Brett Kavanaugh was named to be his replacement, more than 20 million Americans tuned in as Kavanaugh tried to fend off allegations of sexual assault. Trump and the Republicans turned the confirmation hearings into a rallying cry about how unfair the news media and the Democrats were. The blowback, many Democrats believe, helped them flip suburban House districts around the country en route to a 41-seat House majority, but it also, they say, helped Republicans flip Senate seats held by Democrats in conservative states like South Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri by convincing GOP-leaning voters to come home.
This has been the Republicans’ play for most of the Trump era: finding a culture-war wedge that can excite the base. It’s a difficult maneuver to pull off with a center-left electorate, but in 2016 it was enough for Trump to win an Electoral College victory despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million, and enough to flip three Senate seats in 2018 despite a Democratic-wave election.
And Trump is making the same play, his advisers and other unaffiliated Republicans say, hoping that naming another conservative to the bench will ignite both Democratic and Republican backlashes.
“Trump needs a unified base. He has understood that since day one, and everything you see him doing now [by quickly moving to name a Ginsburg replacement] is in service to that,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster. “You look in a lot of states where Republican [Senate candidates] are performing below their fundamentals — Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina — and they need these Trump voters to come out for them.”
National polls show most voters would prefer that the Senate wait to confirm the next Supreme Court justice until after the election. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Sunday found that 62 percent held this view, while just 23 percent thought the seat should be filled by the current president and Senate. And the prospect of Trump naming Ginsburg’s successor has brought a torrent of money into Democratic coffers. ActBlue, the Democrats’ online fundraising arm, received more than $91 million in little more than the first day after Ginsburg’s death and looks set to double that amount by the beginning of next week.
Still, Republicans say that any time the conversation can be dominated by a Supreme Court fight, they benefit. Polls that show Trump naming Ginsburg’s successor as unpopular are that way because, for many voters, this means replacing Trump with Ginsburg; once a new justice is named, especially if she’s a camera-ready woman like the leading candidates, Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa, voters will have another figure to latch on to, one they don’t want to see dragged by Democrats on the Judiciary Committee or by the media, according to Brad Todd, a Republican strategist working on Senate races in North Carolina, Texas, and Arizona.
“It is going to be about the issues; it is going to be about the judge,” Todd said. “You take suburban Republican women who don’t like Trump and didn’t want to vote for him, and when the media attacks Amy Coney Barrett over her faith or over the fact that she has seven children, they are going to see it as an attack on them.”
Democratic strategists say that is nonsense and not borne out by the data. Trump’s numbers have hardly moved in four years, and even in states where Trump is popular, Republican Senate candidates are often running behind him. Over the next six weeks, Democrats intend to show that the willingness of GOP senators to abandon previous pledges not to vote on a Supreme Court nominee in a president’s final year in office is exactly what people don’t like about Republican senators: that they are craven politicians and Trump toadies who don’t stand up for their states’ interests.
“Look at South Carolina,” said Jef Pollock, a Democratic pollster working on nine competitive Senate races across the country. “You have a guy in Lindsey Graham, who has been consistently underperforming in the polls relative to Trump. And why is that? It’s because that guy is full of shit, and the voters know it. Voters — and I’m talking even Republican voters that are going to vote for Trump — say they aren’t voting for Graham because they see him as phony. I don’t see how watching him lick Donald Trump’s boots over the next 40 days is really going to help his cause.”