What Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Death Means for the Electoral Map
Which states are most likely to be affected by the Supreme Court vacancy?
On Friday evening, it was announced that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died of pancreatic cancer. Given the stakes of a Supreme Court seat, it is no surprise that her passing is being discussed in the context of the 2020 election. While this is certainly a dramatic development, it is unclear how it will influence the campaign.
To process how this might impact the election it is worth setting out what we know and what we don’t. McConnell and Trump are planning to put up a conservative nominee, likely Amy Coney Barret, the 48-year-old 7th circuit judge. We don’t know when Trump will announce a nomination, but it will probably be soon. From there, things get quite uncertain. We don’t know the timeline for the nomination, and we certainly don’t know how the public will respond to this unprecedented situation. According to a Pew poll from August, Democrats care slightly more about the Supreme Court than Republicans, though a vacant seat on the Court could obviously shift those opinions.
Despite all this uncertainty, we are seeing a lot of folks making bold claims about how things will play out. Pundits are split on whether this is good or bad for Trump, or how he should navigate the nomination fight. This kind of baseless theorizing is exhausting — it is possible to talk yourself into and out of dozens of possible positions. We really just don’t know.
Rather than speculate on unanswerable questions, it is better to focus on subjects we can address. Given that the control of the presidency and the Senate are each determined by roughly 10 states each, we can examine the potential impact of the Supreme Court vacancy on the trajectory of each race.
The Supreme Court is obviously incredibly influential in many matters of public life, but specific issues like abortion, gay rights, religious freedom, gun control, and environmental regulations are more explicitly associated with the Court. States with stronger ideological preferences on these subjects are more likely to be activated by the Supreme Court fight. From there, we can predict how each race might shift over the coming weeks.
First, let’s take a look at the state of the race before RBG’s death.
State of the race
Trump’s chances aren’t amazing. 538’s model had him at a ~22% chance to win the electoral college. The 10 most competitive races are in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. Simplifying the electoral college math, Trump would need to win 8 of these contests to retake the presidency. As of right now, he is favored in only 4.
The race for the Senate is much tighter. According to 538, the 10 most important races are in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, North Carolina and South Carolina. Democrats needs to win at least 4 of these 10 races to take the Senate. Before RBG’s death, Democrats were a favorite to win in Maine, North Carolina, Arizona, and Colorado, putting the Senate at exactly 50–50, meaning Vice President Harris would likely break any ties. As of writing this, 538 gives Democrats a 71% chance to win the Senate using the “Lite” model.
(Side Note: if you are uninterested in the nitty-gritty of the public opinion analysis, you can skip to the section titled “What it means”)
Senator Approval Before and After Kavanaugh Vote
While there is nothing directly analogous to what we might expect from the RBG replacement confirmation proceedings, Kavanaugh’s confirmation process in the fall of 2018 is probably the closest we have. Given how divisive and bitter the Kavanaugh hearings were, there is a very good chance the coming battle will be just as explosive.
By comparing Senator approval before and after the Kavanaugh hearings, we can get an approximation of what each state will think about the RBG vacancy. If Senator approval improved after the Kavanaugh appointment, then the state’s voters probably agreed with their Senator’s action. If approval fell, citizens probably disliked their Senator’s choice.
*John McCain died August 25. He seat was taken over by Jon Kyl.
Arizona and Wisconsin appear to be strongly opposed to the appointment of Kavanaugh, while Iowa and Georgia were moderately opposed. Texas and North Carolina seem to moderately approve of Kavanaugh. On net, these numbers do not suggest that the Supreme Court seat will be the break-out issue for Trump’s re-election campaign.
States relevant to the Senate map seem to have stronger opinions about the Supreme Court. Doug Jones lost 5% popularity over this fight, while Lindsay Graham gained a whopping 10 points. Steve Daines gained 9%, but this could be a result missing the vote as he was attending his daughter’s wedding, therefore avoiding the partisan food-fight. Jodi Ernst in Iowa should also be spooked by these numbers, as her popularity dropped by 5% after the Kavanaugh confirmation.
Christianity and Religiosity
Conservative Christians are one of the groups most activated by issues on the Supreme Court. Whether the issue is abortion, religious liberties, or gay marriage, Catholics and Evangelical Christians are very likely to have strong opinions on the SCOTUS. Nationally, 70% of Americans identify as Christian, with 25% identifying as Evangelical, and 21% identifying as Catholic.
Looking at the presidential race, most states look similar to the national average. Georgia and North Carolina appear to have a lot of Evangelicals, while Nevada and Pennsylvania have fewer than the national average. For the Senate, there are a few more states that stand out. 49% of Alabamans identify as Evangelical, which is extremely high. Colorado and Maine both have a below average number of Christians, suggesting less interest in an RBG replacement.
But it isn’t just about what religion you belong to, it is also about how strongly you hold those beliefs.
In the presidential race, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas stick out as having a strong core of very religious Christians. This fits with stereotypes of the areas, but it is instructive to see this is true in practice. On the other hand, Nevada and Wisconsin have relatively few people who identify as very religious, which is a good sign for the Biden campaign.
Alabama again jumps out on the Senate chart. A full 77% of adults in Alabama identify as very religious. Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina also host large contingents of very religious folks. Montana’s results are notable, with only 69% identifying as somewhat or very religious, meaning the Supreme Court seat might be a good issue for Democrats.
Support for same-sex marriage has shifted dramatically since it was legalized, but not all states are enthusiastic on the subject. Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas all have low approval on the subject, while Iowa is also slightly cool. Nevada and Wisconsin are actually quite accepting to same-sex marriage, with Arizona and Pennsylvania also being supportive.
When it comes to the Senate map, things get way more polarized! Alabama has the lowest approval of same-sex marriage of any state in the nation. The Carolinas are not as conservative as Alabama, but they are far to the right of the average American. Colorado, Maine and Montana are all quite supportive of the subject, each reporting a greater than two-thirds approval.
Abortion is a bit more surprising than some of the other topics. Florida and Nevada appear to be relatively open on the matter, each offering higher-than-average levels of support. Texas is the most conservative of the states being analyzed, offering only 45% approval.
Alabama is again far to the right on this topic, offering only 37% support. South Carolina is also cold, sitting at only 42% approval. Most of the other states are also cool on the subject, though Colorado, Maine, and Montana are all slightly to the left relative to the nation.
Alabama, Montana and Texas do not like gun control. Most of the competitive states are fairly neutral on gun control, but these three outliers are really sour on the subject. It should be noted that these results came from a poll that was taken most recently in September 2020, meaning it is more current than many of the other polls discussed here.
Note: the question asked whether stricter environmental regulations hurt the economy, meaning a higher score indicates a more conservative view.
Environmental regulations may not be one of the main topics we associate with the Supreme Court, but there is one result that sticks out as potentially important. Montana is slightly to the left on religiously-linked issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, but is hard right on environmentalism. In fact, Montana is the furthest right than any other state in the country. If the Republican Senate candidate can tie the Supreme Court fight to environmentalism, there is a decent chance it will help him in the race.
What it means
Doug Jones, Martha McSally and Cory Gardner are Probably Toast
Alabama’s Democratic incumbent Doug Jones had an uphill battle this year before Ginsburg died, but now he is in way over his head. On social issues, Alabama is hard conservative. It is one of the most religious states in the nation, and has right-leaning views on every social issue. On top of that, Jones lost 5% after his “no” vote on Kavanaugh. While Jones has not made any official statement on a potential nominee to fill Ginsburg’s seat, he has said he would oppose Trump’s Supreme Court appointments in the past. At this point, Jones is a heavy underdog in his race.
McSally, Gardner and Collins are all in similar positions, but have each taken a different approach to the controversy. Arizona’s Republican incumbent Martha McSally has publicly announced that she supports voting on Trump’s nominee sight-unseen. Arizona is moderate-to-left on social issues, so it’s unlikely McSally’s bold stance will help her electorally. McSally was already behind in her race before the SCOTUS vacancy, so her approach looks like it is aimed at securing a job after the election rather than winning her race.
Colorado’s Republican incumbent Cory Gardner is in a tough spot. Colorado is quite left-leaning on subjects under the purview of the Supreme Court. If he takes a bold stand in favor of Trump he will lose support for moderate voters. Alternatively, if Gardner takes a stand against Trump in an attempt to save his seat, he will likely demotivate the Republican base in the state. In that scenario he likely still loses his election and makes some enemies on his way out. As of right now, it doesn’t appear that Gardner has made any clear statements on the subject, but he is very much between a rock and a hard place. I expect he will follow McSally’s lead, support Trumps nominee, and start setting up interviews at consultancy firms.
Of the most vulnerable incumbents, Collins looks to have a narrow path to victory. Maine’s Republican incumbent has already come out against replacing RBG before the election. Given Collins’ history on Supreme Court judges, it is entirely possible her position waffles, but for now she is anti-replacement. Polling on the Collins race is very close, and given the drop in her approval after the Kavanaugh nomination, she will probably lose the election if she votes yes on Trump’s nominee. Strategically, her ideal scenario is Trump attempting to ram through the nomination before the election, and she gets to place a protest vote against Trump, “proving” herself as an independent voice. Obviously, a lot can go wrong in this series of events, but it is probably the best chance Collins has to navigate this thorny issue.
Senate Could Be Slightly More Difficult for Democrats
The Democrats need to a total of three seats gain control of the Senate, and while they are close, it might be tough to get over the line. Thom Tillis, the Republican incumbent from North Carolina, is slightly behind at this point, but North Carolina is pretty conservative on issues like same-sex marriage and the environment. Tillis has already come out strongly in support of Trump’s unnamed nominee. We should expect that Tillis will attempt to steer the race in North Carolina to focus on the Supreme Court.
It’s amusing to watch people on Twitter get worked-up about Lindsay Graham’s hypocrisy on the Supreme Court. In 2016, he was opposed to filling a seat on the court before the election, but in 2020 he has flipped his position. While this blatant opportunism is obnoxious, it is worth looking at the ideological lean of Graham’s state. 69% of the state identifies as “very” religious. Abortion has only 42% approval. Most voters in South Carolina probably agree with Lindsay Graham on most issues relevant to the Supreme Court. Not only that, Graham’s popularity spiked by a full 10% after the Kavanaugh hearings! He went from fairly unpopular, to over 50% approval! It seems likely that many voters in South Carolina will forgive Graham’s hypocrisy on the grounds that they are getting a conservative justice. Expect that Graham to position himself front-and-center in the hearings, attempting to recapture some of that bounce from the last Supreme Court fight.
Montana, quite frankly, is weird. It is not particularly religious, and is somewhat liberal on abortion and gay marriage, but it is also far to the right on environmental regulation and gun control. Daines, who is the Republican incumbent, gained a lot of popularity after he supported Kavanaugh’s nomination, but it is possible the boost is due to his absence from the actual vote. At the same time, Tester remained popular, even though he voted against Kavanaugh. There is a chance this ends up being a winning issue for the Democratic challenger Steve Bullock, but he will need to work to frame the subject perfectly. Given that Bullock is behind right now, this probably just makes his job more complicated.
The remaining Senate races are Perdue v. Ossoff in Georgia, Marshall v. Boiller in Kansas, and Ernst v. Greenfield in Iowa. Both Georgia and Kansas are right-of-center on issues related to the Supreme Court, and in both cases the Republican is already in the lead. The Supreme Court issue may push these contests from “competitive” to “likely R”. Iowa’s Senate race is a virtual toss-up at the moment. Given that the state is very close to the ideological center on most topics, it seems unlikely that we see a huge reaction to the open SCOTUS seat. The main worry for the Ernst camp would be the dip in her approval seen after the Kavanaugh hearings; if a similar drop was seen now, we would expect Ernst to go from slim favorite, to solidly behind.
If we assume that Jones, McSally, and Gardner all lose their elections, the Democrats still need to pick up two more seats to take control of the chamber. Perdue, Marshall, and Graham are all probably helped by this development to the point that their seats are more likely to be Republican. This leaves Democrats needing to win two out of Collins v. Gideon, Ernst v. Greenfield, Daines v. Bullock, and Tillis v. Cunningham. While it is possible the Supreme Court vacancy might help Gideon and Greenfield, the fact that Cunningham’s job is more difficult is a big cost.
Before Ginsburg’s death, the 538 model gave Democrats a 71% chance to win the Senate (using the Lite mode). If I had to guess, the Supreme Court vacancy probably could shift the odds to 60–40 or even 50–50. Overall, this is a relatively small shift, but it could be enough to determine who controls the Senate.
Texas is Probably out of Reach for Democrats
Texas has been tormenting Democrats for years. It has slowly trended left, but has stubbornly refused to flip to the Democratic party. This year, it looked like we might finally see Texas turn blue, but the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg may shut that down.
On social issues, Texas is noticeably conservative. 86% of the state identifies as somewhat or very religious. Only 55% of Texans are supportive of gay marriage (compared to 61% of the nation), 45% agree that abortion should be legal in most cases (compared to 53% of the nation), and 41% favor stricter gun control laws (compared to 50% of the nation). Given that Democrats were already behind, the Supreme Court vacancy has probably pushed this state out of reach.
Presidential Race Playing Field Narrows, But Similar Results
The competitive states in the presidential election are just not that ideological on social issues. Florida, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Pennsylvania all seem very middle-of-the-road. Texas, North Carolina, and Ohio are all right-of-center socially, but Biden doesn’t need any of these states to win.
As of right now, the “playing field” of the presidential election is spread out across about 10 states. In the coming weeks, we may see a rightward shift in Texas, North Carolina and Ohio, meaning Democrats pull back their attention from these areas. On the flip side, Wisconsin and Arizona will become more solidly blue. Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Florida will then becoming the focal-point of the election. Overall, it seems unlikely the Court vacancy will meaningfully help Trump’s campaign.
It All Comes Down to the Trump Show
This analysis is based on a big-picture view of the polling within each of these states, but the details of the are incredibly important. Who is the nominee? They need to be right-wing enough to activate socially conservative voters, but not so crazy to catalyze a backlash from the left or spook moderates. When exactly does the confirmation vote take place? There is a big difference between before and after the election.
All of this ultimately comes down to Trump’s strategy and execution. Trump has had two Supreme Court appointments, the first was one of the high-points of his presidency, and the second was an absolute gong show that caused a dip in his approval. Given the low political engagement of undecided voters, it is very possible that many will base their final voting decision on the events in the coming weeks. If Trump is able to smoothly deliver a Supreme Court justice that appears to be competent and not overly partisan, it could moderately improve his chance at re-election. If Trump botches the nomination, tripping over himself procedurally, or gets into a fight with his own party, it is possible that 2020 ends up being an electoral blow-out.
If the Kavanaugh hearings are the most analogous historical precedent, we should remember that Trump’s approval first dropped then rebounded over the course of that confirmation battle. The details of this fight could be extremely consequential. As of this morning, Trump has already fielded a conspiracy theory that Ginsburg’s wish to be replaced by the winner of the election was a fake, suggesting he may have a difficult time staying on the rails.
Biden is also not simply a bystander in all of this. Many left-wing influencers have advocated expanding the Supreme Court as a response to the McConnell’s roadblock on the Merrick Garland Supreme Court nomination. Jamming through another Justice before the election or during the lame duck will give expanded license to the Biden administration to use these tactics, but it is hard to know how the public will react to these measures. Biden is also not the best at communicating on complicated policy topics, so it is possible he fumbles discussing the subject. Court reform also has the potential to become a divisive topic within the Democratic party, and Trump is talented at identifying these wedge issues, and hammering them.
Unfortunately, this kind of environment is ripe for the absolute worst type of media and punditry. Cable news runs on conflict, suspense, and spectacle. The “both-sides”-ism will be in absolute overdrive, while pundits spin up as much controversy as possible. If you care about the outcome of this election, don’t rely on commentators to articulate the facts of the Supreme Court fight, as they will be too focused on wallowing in the drama.
The only thing that is certain is that we are in for an unforgettable election season.