As Senate Republicans rushed on Thursday to ready a final confirmation vote for the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, many political observers were fixating on two opinion polls that appear to suggest that the bitter partisan row over Kavanaugh has galvanized Republican voters and could help the G.O.P. retain control of the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections. The hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinkski, spent a good deal of time expounding this meme. A headline on the Washington Post’s The Daily 202 newsletter summed it up: “How Senate Republicans could win the battle and the war on Kavanaugh.”
Before anointing Kavanaugh as the savior of the Republican Party, it is worth taking a breath or two. The anger among conservatives over how he has been treated is real enough, and it could help some Republicans in red-state Senate races where Democrats are already embattled, such as North Dakota. But the backlash against Kavanaugh’s confirmation among liberals and moderate voters, particularly women, will surely carry even greater intensity. In the weeks leading up to November 6th, it could give a boost to Democratic candidates everywhere, particularly in suburban areas, where the balance of power in the House of Representatives will be determined.
That makes a Democratic takeover of the House, and the power of subpoena, even more likely than it is already, which can hardly be classified as good news for the G.O.P. and Donald Trump. Moreover, when Kavanaugh takes his seat on the bench, he won’t be going anywhere for decades, good health permitting. He’ll sit there in the Supreme Court Building, his very name a permanent rallying cry for Democratic activists and fund-raisers, and a reminder to everyone of the manner in which the Republican leadership and the Trump White House steamrolled him onto the Court.
In the long run, this will only accentuate the G.O.P.’s difficulty in attracting female voters, particularly those with a college education. But what of the short run? One of the surveys that indicated rising enthusiasm among Republican voters was carried out on Monday by the polling institute at Marist University for “PBS NewsHour.” It showed that eighty per cent of self-identified Republicans regard the November elections as “very important,” compared with eighty-two per cent of self-identified Democrats. In July, there was a ten-point gap between these numbers: now it is just two points. The other poll that indicated Republican voters are paying closer attention was a Fox News survey of four key Senate races: Arizona, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota. It found that “Republicans are now just as likely as Democrats to say they are extremely interested—erasing an edge Democrats had in several states last month.”
How to explain this development? The director of the Marist polling, Lee Miringoff, attributed it to the fact that the Kavanaugh hearings had “awakened” the G.O.P. base, and some Republican analysts echoed this argument. “Any Dem enthusiasm gap has been erased and even surpassed by GOP due to Kavanaugh hearings #Midterms2018,” Chris Wilson, a G.O.P. pollster, wroteon Twitter. This sounds like a plausible theory, but Kavanaugh may not be the only reason more Republican voters are starting to focus seriously on the midterms. After all, Election Day is only a month away. In the distant run-up to an election, voters who are generally satisfied with the political status quo tend to be less engaged than those who are enraged by it. As the election approaches, they take more interest.
But even if we concede that the battle over Kavanaugh has got the Republican base riled up, we also have to take into account its impact on the Democratic base, especially younger voters, who tend to produce low turnout rates in midterm elections. One Democratic supporter told me last weekend that, although he personally hoped Kavanaugh’s candidacy would be struck down, the ideal outcome for the Party would be for the Republicans to railroad it through on the basis of a sham F.B.I. investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct. That is what is now happening.
We’ll have to wait to see what impact this has in places like New Jersey’s Eleventh Congressional District, Illinois’s Sixth District, Pennsylvania’s Sixth District, and Texas’s Thirty-second District, which are all Republican-held seats that represent affluent suburban communities with a high proportion of college-educated voters. But, on the basis of the latest polls, it seems fair to assume that voters in these sorts of areas, particularly female ones, will be even more motivated to register a protest against the G.O.P. and Trump.
The Marist poll that indicated rising intensity among Republican voters also showed that sixty-six per cent of female college graduates believed Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and that just twenty-six per cent of them believed Kavanaugh. Looking at all women (graduates and non-graduates), the figures divided along party lines. But among women who identify as independents—that is, about a third of them—fifty-six per cent believed Ford and twenty-four per cent believed Kavanaugh.
A Quinnipiac University poll that was taken last week produced similar findings even when the sample was limited to white women, who tend to vote Republican in larger numbers than non-white women do. That survey found that sixty-seven per cent of college-educated white females disapproved of the way Senate Republicans were handling the allegations against Kavanaugh, and fifty-eight per cent thought he shouldn’t be confirmed.
To be sure, both of these polls were taken before the F.B.I. sent the results of its “supplemental investigation” to the White House. Conceivably, some Kavanaugh skeptics could be reassured by Senator Susan Collins’s statement that the F.B.I. carried out a “very thorough” investigation and will change their minds. But that seems unlikely given the fact that the F.B.I. only spoke to nine people, and many would-be witnesses weren’t heard from.
The more probable outcome is that a vote to confirm Kavanaugh, which now seems almost inevitable, will simply accentuate the polarization that is already so evident, giving people who dislike and disapprove of Trump yet another reason to be angry. With virtually every poll that has been taken since Trump entered the White House indicating that this group is in the majority, G.O.P. strategists can hardly look upon this prospect with equanimity.
Finally, it should be noted that there is still another month until the elections. Harold Wilson, the Labour Party politician who twice served as Britain’s Prime Minister, used to say that a week is a long time in politics. In the Trump era, a month is a very long time. But for now, as Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, wrote on Thursday, the “environment for Republicans remains treacherous.”