Two weeks ago, conventional wisdom held that Republican turnout next month would collapse if the Senate failed to confirm Brett Kavanaugh. That was before his nomination was thrust into the cultural divide over white male privilege. Some polling suggested that previously demoralized Republicans were suddenly interested in the election for the first time, threatening to undermine a key element of the building Democratic wave. Conventional wisdom shifted: Democrats, we were told, should be careful about what they wish for, as Republican turnout would skyrocket if Kavanaugh went down.
We may well be at a defining political moment, and I would urge caution before drawing firm conclusions about the ramifications of the past week. At this point I feel comfortable offering only initial impressions. The Kavanaugh hearings were a shock to the political system, playing out at the leading edge of the fault lines dividing America, and it can be difficult to get an accurate gauge of public opinion during an event like this. Think of opinion like a glass of water, with the Kavanaugh hearings shoving the glass and causing the water to slosh around. If you try to measure the water level while it’s moving you’ll get a snapshot that says nothing about where the water will settle.
Here’s what we do know: Trump supporters—female and male—were motivated to get Kavanaugh confirmed. Non-Republican women—Democrats and independents—were enraged by the treatment of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and by a party that blatantly told them they don’t matter. Unanswered is whether the Trump base will continue to rally now that the threat to Kavanaugh’s nomination has passed. Trump won’t be able to refrain from taking a month-long victory lap as he campaigns for Republican candidates, communicating to his voters that their grievances have been addressed. But voters rarely turn out to express gratitude. Far more certain is white-hot anger will fuel turnout on the other side, although that turnout may not be felt evenly across the political playing field.
The Kavanaugh hearings will reverberate differently in House and Senate elections because of the vastly different populations that will determine control of the two chambers. Republicans are defending dozens of suburban districts where the rage expressed by the Democratic base threatens to exacerbate their already tenuous hold on the House. We’ll know more in a week or so when we have reliable polling, but it’s hard for me to imagine that the events of the past two weeks will do anything but deepen the Democrats’ advantage. Given the proximity of the election to the confirmation battle and how strongly the fundamentals favor Democrats, it’s easy to imagine that Republicans just traded control of the House for a seat on the Supreme Court.
The picture in the Senate is more complicated because Democrats have to defend seats in conservative rural states. Although anti-Kavanaugh energy may boost Democrats in states with large urban populations like Florida and Nevada, if Republican turnout rises above pre-Kavanaugh expectations it will assist them in states like North Dakota and Indiana—and there is no margin for error. Because Democrats face long Senate odds, even a small boost in Republican engagement could blunt the blue wave enough to keep them from netting the two seats they need for Senate control. But from the standpoint of what we have always expected from this election, sustained Republican engagement would simply save the party from total annihilation. It would require depressed enthusiasm from Democrats for the wave to fizzle entirely, and there are no signs this is happening. Judging from the sustained intensity of the protests in front of the Supreme Court today, exactly the opposite may be brewing.
There are now 31 days until the election and 32 days before the start of the 2020 presidential campaign.