Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement announcement last week comes at a vulnerable time for President Joe Biden. His approval rating is at its lowest point, 41%, in an average of polls. His decline is clear even among core Democratic groups.
The good news for the President is the upcoming Supreme Court nomination fight likely can’t hurt and could help him gain ground with his base. For starters, it could help motivate them to vote in the 2022 midterm election, as nominations during former President Donald Trump’s administration taught us.
You can see Biden’s base problems in a recent Pew Research Center poll. His approval rating among Democrats was down to just 76%. Biden’s standing with independent-leaning Democrats was an even lower 56%. At his peak, in April 2021, his approval rating with each group was about 20 and 30 points higher respectively.
Within the Democratic base, Biden’s numbers have been sinking among younger voters and minorities. The Pew poll has him down to a 35% approval rating among 18-29 year-olds, even though that was his strongest age group in the 2020 election. Biden’s approval rating slipped to just 60% with Black adults, even as he won this group with about 90% of the vote in 2020, when he first pledged to nominate a Black woman to the court.
Biden’s drop within his base comes after being unable to deliver so far on his Build Back Better agenda and federal voting rights legislation, as well as souring views of his handling of the economy and the coronavirus.
That’s why he needs to remind Democrats why they voted for him in the first place.
Nominating a liberal who would make history to the Supreme Court can do exactly that, even if it won’t change the ideological makeup of the court. Democrats have turned against the court with its 6-3 conservative majority. A recent Marquette University Law School poll has Democratic approval of the court down to 45%. It was 57% two months before the 2020 election.
Now to be fair, a successful Supreme Court confirmation might not be enough to help Biden given voters’ views of the economy and the pandemic.
Oftentimes though, one event can get the ball rolling in politics. Biden’s decline in popularity started with Americans disliking how he handled the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in August. Few voters cared a lot about Afghanistan specifically during the withdrawal, but it started a cascading bad news train for Biden that continued with concerns over the coronavirus – with the emergence of the Delta and Omicron variants – and the economy.
Biden likely hopes a Supreme nomination and confirmation can do the opposite. Nominate someone popular to the court, see Covid-19 cases drop (as they are right now) and maybe Democrats return to backing Biden.
We already saw how a Supreme Court nomination fight can help a struggling president during the Trump administration.
Trump’s first nominee for the court, now Justice Neil Gorsuch, was one of the most positively received actions Trump took during his first 100 days in office. His nomination and confirmation came during a time when Trump’s popularity fell steadily during most of those first 100 days.
Trump’s popularity went up immediately after Gorsuch was confirmed. While we cannot prove that the confirmation of Gorsuch provided a temporary boost to Trump, it certainly didn’t hurt. In an average of polls, Trump’s net approval rating went from -12 points the day before confirmation to -7 points a month later. That may not seem like a lot, but remember Trump generally had one of the steadiest approval ratings on record and the little movement before this had been against him.
Trump’s approval rating climb reversed itself after he fired then-FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, which goes to show a Supreme Court nomination won’t necessarily help if the public holds other things against you.
Trump’s next nomination fight to confirm now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh may have helped Republicans retain the Senate during the 2018 midterms.
Republicans would have lost the majority if they didn’t flip at least one Democratic-held seat. They ended up flipping four seats in states that Trump had won in 2016 (and later won again in 2020).
Republicans credited Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation hearings and Democratic senators voting against him for shifting the Senate odds in their favor. Indeed, statistical models at the time showed in real time that Republicans’ chances of holding onto the Senate improved because they were picking up ground in red states where vulnerable Democratic incumbents were on defense.
The hearings also seemed to boost the chance of Republicans voting in the midterms. Likely voters became more Republican-leaning compared to all registered voters, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver.
Enthusiasm is important because midterms have lower turnout than presidential elections, and Democrats have an enthusiasm problem right now.
A recent NBC News poll found that Republicans are more than 10 points more likely to say they have high interest in the 2022 midterms than Democrats. This a major decline among Democrats from a few months ago, and a reversal from where we were at this point in the 2018 midterm cycle.
Specifically, the polling indicates that Black voters and younger Democrats have had some of the sharpest declines in interest. These are the usually Democratic-leaning groups where Biden’s approval has declined the most as well.
This isn’t a coincidence and should worry Democrats. If you examine the polling (e.g. Quinnipiac University), these groups still favor Democratic candidates for Congress by significant margins.
But if these voters don’t show up because they don’t like Biden, then it won’t matter that they still prefer Democratic congressional candidates to Republicans.
And if Democrats lose even one Senate seat this November, it will severely limit Biden’s ability to nominate anyone else to the court during the rest of his first term in office should the opportunity come up. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has already suggested as much.