The backlash against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has actually had the opposite effect that Democrats and progressives had hoped for: It’s emboldened the GOP voting base just in time for the midterms. At least, that’s what prominent Republicans on Twitter would have you believe.
They’re citing a new poll from NPR and PBS News that suggests the dramatic confirmation process for Kavanaugh — who has been publicly accused of sexual assault and misconduct by at least three women — has chipped away at the enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic voters. The poll says 82 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans say upcoming elections are “very important.” The same poll, in July, gave Democrats a 10-point lead.
President Donald Trump has been pushing that narrative, tweeting: “The harsh and unfair treatment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh is having an incredible upward impact on voters. The PEOPLE get it far better than the politicians. Most importantly, this great life cannot be ruined by mean & despicable Democrats and totally uncorroborated allegations!”
But is that true? Have Democrats inadvertently helped secure Kavanaugh’s confirmation and assisted Republicans in the upcoming midterms? The reality of the situation is a bit complicated, as it so often is, because both sides of the aisle can make the case that Kavanaugh is rallying their supporters.
The case for Republicans
Republicans have seen a slight boost in recent polls. Two North Dakota polls, for example, show Sen. Heidi Heitkamp — one of the five key senators in the Kavanaugh confirmation vote, who announced Thursday she’s a no — down by almost 11 percent in her race. And a Quinnipiac poll shows Democrats’ general polling lead shrinking. On top of that, more polls show closer-than-previously-thought Senate races in New Jersey and good chances for Republican incumbents in districts of Ohio and Virginia.
The president and other prominent conservatives have voiced excitement over the polling boost.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, clearly emboldened, called Kavanaugh “one of the most impressive, most stunningly qualified Supreme Court nominees in our nation’s history.” He has scheduled a vote for Kavanaugh, who is now poised to be confirmed to the Supreme Court after a signal of approval from two Republican swing-vote senators, for Friday.
FiveThirtyEight’s famous poll expert Nate Silver even says there’s “something there” in the Kavanaugh backlash, but cautioned it should not be exaggerated.
“Overall, I’m inclined to conclude there’s actually something there for Republicans — that their position has genuinely improved from where it was a week ago,” Silver wrote. “There is truth in the idea that Republicans have had a decent week of polling, but it can also be exaggerated by cherrypicking data that’s consistent with a particular narrative.”
The case for Democrats
As noted by Silver, cherrypicking polling data to fit a particular narrative is a questionable tactic, and one that Democrats could avail themselves of as comfortably as Republicans. Since Kavanaugh’s hearing, some Democrats have also seen a boost. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and one of the Kavanaugh swing votes, is coming in with solid polling numbers. And Democrats in Arizona, Minnesota, and Florida have seen boosts. An Ipsos poll also shows that Democrats have increased their generic ballot lead since Kavanaugh and Ford testified.
But polling — especially polling of progressives — has proven consistently unreliable. A few examples: The GOP’s worst nightmare Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was trailing Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley by 36 points in one poll leading up to the primary in New York but ended up delivering a 15-point victory; Florida’s gubernatorial primary polling had Andrew Gillum, the eventual winner of the Democratic primary, coming in in fourth place; and, of course, Trump himself, who was projected to lose to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. That’s because pollsters essentially have no idea if they’re interviewing a representative sample of voters, experts say.
But even if you do buy polling, Kavanaugh was already one of the least popular Supreme Court nominees in recent history, even before his numbers tanked during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.
And although a poll indicates that Republicans are showing an increased voting enthusiasm, that doesn’t necessarily indicate a decrease in political enthusiasm on the left. Progressive and leftists are calling it a tactic to discredit an upswing in progressive enthusiasm.
The New York Times’ White House reporter Maggie Haberman predicted that, if Kavanaugh is confirmed, it’s likely that Democrats’ anger over the process would have more staying power than the Republicans’ temporary increase in enthusiasm.
And, privately, some Republicans say they believe Kavanaugh is a two-sided coin for the GOP. Republicans told the Hill that Kavanaugh was energizing their base but doing little to help in swing states, where lawmakers like Rep. Leonard Lance are in danger of losing their seats. Republicans see Kavanaugh as a positive for the Senate and a drawback for the House.
Cover image: Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 4, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)