Why Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death is unlikely to shake up the presidential race

Most voters’ views of Trump, Biden are already firmly set

Flowers are seen at a “right turn” sign outside the Supreme Court on Saturday following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Flowers are seen at a “right turn” sign outside the Supreme Court on Saturday following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 20, 2020 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — 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 — impeachment, a global pandemic, an economic crisis, the 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 proved otherwise. It’s a difference between historic events and political game-changers. 

Opinions already hardened

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 latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 52 percent of national likely voters disapproved of his 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 minds about whom they would vote for before Ginsburg’s death. It’s unlikely there are many “soft” Supreme Court voters.

Votes being cast

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 voters will have already cast ballots before a Senate confirmation vote takes place. That could dampen the political impact in either direction.

[Please don’t count the early voting ballots before they’ve hatched]

While the initial narrative surrounding the vacancy suggests Trump could benefit by energizing base Republican voters who were said to have already been energized, or by a change in the topic 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 after. 

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Republicans can only afford to have three senators vote “no” on a new high court nominee, 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 this year, 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. 

Memories of Ayotte, Heck

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 Republicans Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Joe Heck of Nevada in 2016, when they backed away from Trump and went on to lose 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. Inside Elections currently rates that race 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.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.