The Kavanaugh Nomination: The Highs and Lows

The midterm elections – and the September surprise that upended them – are now in the rearview mirror.  Of course, I’m alluding to the sexual assault allegations lodged against Justice Brett Kavanaugh by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and others. Apart from fiercely dividing the country, this episode had two primary quantifiable repercussions: it cemented the trend toward uber-polarization between parties when it comes to their support for Supreme Court nominations, and it helped to rouse a sleepy Republican base to become as fired up for the midterms as Democrats.

A quick refresher: even before the allegations had been made, Kavanaugh’s nomination had set a record for eliciting the weakest support in the initial Gallup read of any nomination since 1991 at just +4{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} (41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} to confirm/37{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} not to confirm). Fox showed a similar spread of +6 (38{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} to confirm/32{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} not to confirm). This was driven by record low support and record high opposition among the party opposite the nominating president – in this case, the Democrats.  See the table below:

By the time the dust settled and Kavanaugh was confirmed on October 6, his nomination had set two additional Gallup records.

  • First, the final Gallup read just prior to his confirmation showed a record high 45{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans opposed to his confirmation (46{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} to confirm/45{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} not to confirm).
  • Second, Kavanaugh’s already-low numbers with Democrats worsened slightly to 13{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}, contributing to a 71{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} gap – the highest ever recorded between the two parties on a SCOTUS nominee – with Republican support for confirmation clocking in at 84{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}.

I hypothesized last year that SCOTUS nominees following Neil Gorsuch would 1) likely fall short of the average support for SCOTUS nominees overall (which I pegged at 51{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) and 2) would continue to register majority opposition among the opposing party. The Kavanaugh episode supports this hypothesis, and it’s likely to get worse with any future nominees, particularly if they are nominated by President Trump.

It is not surprising that the final Gallup read on the Kavanaugh nomination set such negative records. Democrats were clearly following through on their promised all-out assault on the Kavanaugh nomination during the regularly scheduled hearings, and given the nature of the allegations to come, insofar as public opinion goes, these blows took a toll. What Democrats likely did not expect, however, was that as Kavanaugh’s numbers dipped, Democratic voters’ enthusiasm advantage would also fade away.

Take a look at the table below, which shows the percentage of Republicans and Democrats who rated their interest in the midterm elections as 10 or 9-10 on a scale of 1-10, with ten being extremely interested. This data comes from the NBC-WSJ poll, for which POS is the Republican partner.

Democrats had a decided enthusiasm advantage over Republicans in August, just ahead of the post-Labor Day homestretch.  The Washington Post piece on Dr. Ford’s allegation was published on September 16, just as the NBC-WSJ survey was about to field (9/16-19), though the allegation was being teased in the days prior. It’s possible the uptick in GOP enthusiasm in the September survey is a function of both Democrats’ antics during the regular hearings and the incipient appearance of foul play on the part of Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats regarding Dr. Ford’s confidential letter.

Then came the September 27 hearing at which Dr. Ford and Justice Kavanaugh testified. By the October NBC-WSJ read, when voters had had two weeks to digest the testimony of both parties, Republican enthusiasm had shot up by 15 points (10s) and 16 points (9-10s) since August; Democratic enthusiasm had also increased, but not commensurately.  The GOP surge would continue.

By Election Day, Democrats’ “10 advantage” had been erased, as Republicans rating their interest as a 10 had increased by 23 points (Democrats by 11 points). Similarly, by Election Day, Republicans who rated their interest as a 9 or 10 had shot up by 20 points (Democrats by 10 points), totally melting the Democrats’ 9-10 advantage.  Among core partisans on Election Day, the 9-10’s were tied at 80{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}, and core Republicans bested core Democrats on the 10’s, 76{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}-73{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}.  Contrast that with the August data, when core Democrats bested core Republicans on the 10’s, 63{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}-53{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}.

Was this rousing of Republican voters a consequence of Kavanaugh alone?  It is impossible to say, but probably not. Trump’s focus on immigration likely also played a role, as did the tragic shooting in Pittsburgh. It is likely, however, that the Kavanaugh confirmation battle played an outsized role: in addition to setting new polling records on SCOTUS nominations, election interest data indicates that Kavanaugh’s baptism by fire certainly helped to ignite the Republican base and possibly stave off Democratic hopes of re-taking the Senate.

Polling for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal is conducted by Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democratic pollster Fred Yang. This analysis is my own and does not necessarily reflect the views of NBC, The Wall Street Journal, or Hart Research Associates.



Public Opinion Strategies