The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has the ability to upend the 2020 presidential election. But while most analysis suggests President Donald Trump was helped by the opportunity to appoint a new justice in the 2016 election, polling this time around suggests something different may be in the offing.
I should point out that while it could shift in the days and weeks to come, polling initially shows that former Vice President Joe Biden’s voters have been more likely to be fired up about Supreme Court selections and that voters overall trust Biden more on a Supreme Court selection.
A new Marquette University Law School poll paints the landscape well. Nationally, it finds that 59% of Biden voters say that appointing the next Supreme Court justice is very important to their vote. Compare that with only 51% of Trump voters.
This finding matches what we saw in a CNN/SSRS poll last month. In that poll, 78% of Biden backers told pollsters that nominating the next justice was extremely or very important to their vote. That compared with 64% of Trump supporters. (It was 47% Biden supporters and 32% Trump supporters who said it was extremely important.)
Compare these numbers to what we saw heading into the 2016 election. The final CNN/ORC poll in that cycle showed that 58% of Trump supporters said that nominating the next Supreme Court justice was extremely important to their vote, while only 46% of Hillary Clinton voters said the same. In the 2016 exit poll, Trump beat Clinton by a 15 point margin among those who put Supreme Court appointments as the most important factor to their vote.
In other words, it seems, at least initially, that unlike in 2016, a Supreme Court nominating fight could be more of a motivating factor for Democrats than Republicans.
Of course, this election is going to be fought in the swing states and it’s going to be fought over the few voters who are still persuadable at this stage.
New York Times and Siena College polled voters this week in Arizona, Maine and North Carolina about their views of the presidential candidates and the Supreme Court.
Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Biden was more trusted to pick a nominee in the average of all three states by a 53% to 41% margin. That was actually larger than his average lead against Trump in the horserace of 50% to 41% in the three states.
This phenomenon of Biden getting slightly more favorable numbers on who should pick the next Supreme Court nominee than in the horserace matches what a recent Fox News national poll found.
But perhaps more interesting is what the New York Times found among persuadable voters (i.e. those who said they could change their mind or were not backing either Biden or Trump). They preferred Biden to pick the next nominee by a 49% to 31% margin.
And among those voters who might not vote (i.e. those who said were less than very likely to cast a ballot), Biden led Trump by a 52% to 23% margin on who would be better at picking the next Supreme Court justice.
In other words, it seems that if the Supreme Court is a motivating factor for voters in these key swing states, it’ll be more likely to get voters out for Biden than Trump.
Of course, this is just a preliminary look before voters knew that there would be another Supreme Court vacancy during Trump’s first term in office. There are a number of complicating factors that could shift things.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said any Trump Supreme Court nominee will get a Senate hearing. And at least initially, a clear majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans said that hearings should be held if a vacancy occurred in 2020 per the Marquette University Law School.
Will Biden lose his edge on the Supreme Court, if Democrats try to block that nominee? Maybe, although I’m at least somewhat skeptical of polling on this issue.
There’s also the possibility that some Democrats will say that the Supreme Court should expand in size, if Republicans confirm a new justice. Biden has argued against that previously.
Although a majority of Democrats (61%) were for expanding the size of the Supreme Court in the Marquette poll, a majority of independents (56%) were against it.
And let’s not forget that Trump has put out a list of potential nominees, while Biden has not. Could Biden’s list shift the dynamic? It’s possible.
The bottom line is there’s a lot we still don’t know. The days and weeks will clarify, but for now the polling indicates that the topic of filling a vacancy helps Biden not Trump.