“Who cares how a Supreme Court nominee is polling? They’re not running for an office!” you say. Right, but Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski and Rand Paul and a bunch of red-state Democrats are. If Kavanaugh’s support is tepid to start with, it means any dirt that comes out during the confirmation process might sour their voters on him. And with confirmation hanging by a thread via a 50/49 party-line vote, even a small shift in public opinion against the nominee might be enough to scare the Senate into borking him.
That comes courtesy of YouGov and HuffPost. The partisan numbers on confirmation are predictable, 6/60 among Democrats versus 85/2 among Republicans, but note how evenly split independents are. Overall, the public narrowly favors confirmation at 33/31 — a statistical jump ball — whereas a year ago the public split 43/28 on Gorsuch’s confirmation. And while the public was reasonably solid in viewing Gorsuch’s nomination favorably (40/28), they’re more evenly split on Kavanaugh’s (34/32).
Fox News also polled on Kavanaugh this week and their numbers weren’t much better:
Last year Gorsuch drew a 49/37 split on the same question. And so we come to the inescapable conclusion: There’s something about Kavanaugh that the public doesn’t like. Right? He’s a hardcore Nats fan. Of course everyone looks at him skeptically!
But is that really what’s happening here — the public just doesn’t like Kavanaugh? Most Americans know nothing about him, only what they saw at the White House announcement and the bits and pieces of jurisprudential esoterica that they’re picking up in scattered news reports. How many Americans could pick him out of police line-up even after Monday’s ceremony? Thirty percent, maybe? Let me suggest that the reason Kavanaugh’s polling worse than Gorsuch has less to do with him and more to do with whom he’s replacing. Swapping out Scalia for Gorsuch was no big deal philosophically since they were each about as conservative as the other; swapping out Kennedy, the famous centrist, for a more dogmatic conservative like Kavanaugh is a big deal. Gorsuch didn’t change the balance of power on Roe or gay rights. Kavanaugh potentially will. Some Americans who’d prefer a more centrist or even left-wing may be reacting accordingly.
Interestingly, both the YouGov and Fox polls show a notable gender gap. Men favor confirming Kavanaugh 40/33 and 47/26, respectively, whereas women oppose confirming him 27/30 and 29/37, respectively. That may be merely an artifact of partisanship, as men trend Republican while women trend Democrat, but maybe not. Maybe abortion politics are influencing views here. (Traditionally men and women split roughly the same on abortion in polling but perhaps that’ll change if suddenly Roe is under real threat.)
Nate Silver has a theory worth thinking about too, though:
Maybe the Bachelor-style treatment of the 4 SCOTUS finalists was dumb and made all of them seem fungible and flawed.
Whereas with Gorsuch, Trump could be like "this guy is special… he's the chosen one". https://t.co/qZlvm5GfNJ
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) July 13, 2018
The only finalist alongside Gorsuch was Tom Hardiman, a dark horse. For all intents and purposes, Gorsuch was the choice all along. Not this time. While most righties are happy enough with Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett was the grassroots choice and Raymond Kethledge had some pockets of support. Could it be that a more competitive SCOTUS race tamped down Republican support for Kavanaugh? As it turns out, yes — at least in Fox’s data. Support among GOPers for Gorsuch was 82/7 versus just 70/6 for Kavanaugh, not a night-and-day difference but enough to hold down Kavanaugh’s overall public support somewhat. It may be that a few Barrett diehards haven’t gotten over Trump picking the safe, establishment, Bushian choice (yet). Silver’s theory doesn’t work with YouGov’s data, however. Last year support among Republicans for confirming Gorsuch was 69/9 (which seems suspiciously low, frankly) versus 85/2 support for Kavanaugh now.
Whatever the explanation, Kavanaugh’s support overall is clearly a bit lower than Gorsuch’s. And unlike Gorsuch, he’s destined to get scuffed up during the confirmation process. The politics of abortion are forever fraught; he’ll be dinged for his work in Ken Starr’s office; he’ll be grilled by Rand Paul and other on his rulings on civil liberties. It may be that as Barrett fans swing around and get in his corner that his numbers will rise, but there’ll be downward pressure too from shots the Dems land on him. If I were Schumer, my strategy for the hearings wouldn’t be to try to block Kavanaugh — that’s unlikely to happen unless something truly scandalous breaks — but to show Trump that Democrats have enough firepower to bloody even a “safe” pick. That might make him think twice about choosing a not-so-safe one like Barrett in case Ginsburg’s seat opens up.