Why ‘the Kavanaugh effect’ on midterms is so unpredictable

Any change attributable to Justice Kavanaugh is likely to be small. Also, nobody can truly predict what it is going to be.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 27, 2018.

When big political news occurs close to an impending election, Washington is usually awash in arguments about how it might affect the upcoming vote. Politicians have a vested interest in insisting that it provides their party an advantage; pundits have a vested interest in saying something provocative or insightful enough to keep them on cable TV.

As you might have guessed, this brings us to the Supreme Court confirmation of Justice Brett Kava­naugh. During recent weeks of struggle there have been lots of predictions about how it will swing the upcoming midterm elections one way or another. We’re here to rain on the punch bowl, take away the parade, or something like that. Any change attributable to Justice Kavanaugh is likely to be small. Also, nobody can truly predict what it is going to be.

Don’t @ me. This isn’t a partisan statement. It is just generally the way voting works. Lots of inputs go into a person’s calculation about how to vote. A change in one issue is marginal and generally doesn’t flip the switch from one party to another or from “yeah, go vote” to “stay home.”

Top Republicans, of course, think differently. They say that Kavanaugh’s victory and the ugly partisan battle that preceded it have fired up Republican midterm enthusiasm.

“This has actually produced an incredible surge of interest among these Republican voters going into the fall election,” said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky following the final Kavanaugh vote.

That could be true. Some polls indicate GOP voters now are much more excited about the upcoming vote. A recent NPR poll showed that Republicans and Democrats are now pretty much equal in saying the upcoming November elections are “very important.” In July the same poll showed Democrats 20 points ahead on that measure.

It might also not be true, or at least not result in the votes Senator McConnell may now expect. A recent CNN survey showed that the voters most enthusiastic about casting ballots are disproportionately disapproving of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Democrats also hold a 13-point lead over the GOP among likely voters in the generic congressional ballot, according to CNN. Kavanaugh might increase Republican turnout but increase Democratic turnout more while turning independents one way or another. Or produce another scramble of events.

What the Kavanaugh hearing has done, apparently, is activate existing political partisans. This is a common result of controversial political events. Generally speaking, people already interested in politics with existing strong views follow them most closely. Whether the roiling emotion of the Kavanaugh saga actually causes anyone to behave differently, however, remains to be seen. (See “doesn’t flip the switch,” above.)

The bottom line: “It’s all complicated and semi-unpredictable,” tweeted Nate Silver, founder and editor in chief of the FiveThirtyEight data journalism site, on Sept. 30.

And that’s just the way things stand if the midterms were today. They’re still weeks away, which is forever in politics, especially in the President Trump era. In news terms, three weeks ago is such a distant past that dinosaurs still walked the earth. Remember when former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort flipped and began cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller? That wasn’t 1957. It was mid-September.

By Nov. 6 the Kavanaugh uproar may be a fading memory, a palimpsest overwritten by more recent and thus more vivid events. That doesn’t mean it won’t have a long-term effect. Far from it. Kava­naugh’s confirmation could have profound long-term judicial and political implications.

His presence on the bench could usher in a new and more conservative Supreme Court era. Lingering anger about his confirmation could become a constant rallying point for Democrats (or Republicans) in future years. The 1991 confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas, accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, inspired a wave of women to run for office. Kavanaugh could have the same effect. 

The consequences of Kavanaugh’s confirmation “may not be immediately visible in the election returns, but they will still stretch on for many years after the 2018 midterms have come and gone,” wrote Boston College political scientist David Hopkins in his “Honest Graft” blog.

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