Could the Supreme Court swing the Senate? New data says yes.
Studies released today at the Democratic National Convention reveal significant voter disapproval of the Senate’s refusal to give a hearing to Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, especially in vulnerable Republican states. In 10 states with vulnerable GOP incumbents, 41 percent of voters said they were less likely to vote for senators who opposed giving Garland a hearing, with about 24 percent more likely to do so.
Even accounting for the 35 percent who had no opinion, that is a stunning spread.
“The obstruction is a major liability for Republicans in the Senate elections,” said Geoff Garin of the left-leaning Hart Research Associates.
Garin also noted that 2016 is different from 2012 and 2008 in terms of how much voters care about the Supreme Court in general. In the last two elections, only about 30 percent of voters said the Court was a “very important consideration” to them. This year, that number is 50 percent.
Moreover, Garin said, the partisan gap on the issue is closing. “Traditionally, Republicans have cared more about the Supreme Court,” he said. “But this cycle, Democrats care as much.”
Garin cited the Garland obstruction, as well as cases like Citizens United and Shelby County, which eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, as reasons for the shift. While Republicans have long focused on the Supreme Court because of social issues like abortion, Democrats are now becoming more aware of it as well.
At the DNC event focused on the new data, sponsored by liberal groups People for the American Way and the Alliance for Justice, Congressman Keith Ellison, an outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders who now strongly endorses Hillary Clinton, gave a poignant example. “What happened to Freddie Gray,” he said, “is a direct result of the Supreme Court limiting the Fourth Amendment … At one point, the Court would’ve said there was no reason to stop him. Now, they’ve put a legal veneer over it.”
Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, released his own set of data that showed that 65 percent of Americans favor giving Judge Garland a hearing—81 percent of Democrats, 56 percent of Independents, and 55 percent of Republicans.
Jensen also noted that several Republican senators have extremely low approval ratings, with senators John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Rob Portman, Ron Johnson, and Pat Toomey all hovering in the low 30 percent range. And in each of those states, voters associated their senators with obstructionism.
By far the least popular politician in the country, Jensen said, is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has an abysmal 15 percent approval rate and 66 percent disapproval rate nationally. That -51 percent net favorability rating dwarfs Hillary Clinton’s, whose net favorability hovers between -10 and -15 percent.
McConnell, Jensen said, is seen as the face of Republican obstructionism, with the Garland nomination playing a central role.
Might the Supreme Court matter in the presidential election as well? Here the data is more mixed.
On the one hand, Jensen emphasized how little voters trust Donald Trump to select Supreme Court justices—only around 38 percent, the same as Trump’s core base of support overall.
Hilariously, Public Policy Voting even asked voters who they trusted more to pick justices, Donald Trump or various celebrities. The result? Tom Hanks wins by 12 points, Peyton Manning by 12, and Taylor Swift tied. Yup, when it comes to appointing Supreme Court justices, voters trust Donald Trump and Taylor Swift equally.
And that’s after the Kanye debacle.
On the other hand, it’s not at all clear how much these preferences will really swing moderate voters. Surely, most of the 50 percent of voters who say the Supreme Court is a very important consideration have already made up their minds. It’s quite possible that the Court is just one more issue that confirms people’s existing preferences.
But when it comes to the Senate, the data is sharper—and more worrying for Republicans. In the states with close elections, even Republicans favor hearings for Judge Garland. That’s true even in Iowa, where the once-untouchable Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now up only 7 to 10 points.
Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way, provided perhaps the best summary of the new data. “It’s not just that the election matters for the court,” Baker said. “The court matters for the election.”