September 21, 2020

The Election's New 'Wild Card': The Supreme Court

The make-up of the Supreme Court has always been a key issue in presidential campaigns. In 2016's exit polls, among those who said the Court was the "most important factor" in their vote, nearly six in ten voted for Trump (56%) and about four in ten for Clinton (41%). It may have been the decisive factor in several swing states.

Now, with the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the issue of the Court's future composition takes on even greater relevance in the upcoming race. With the president intending to send a nominee to the Senate before the November 3rd election, the partisan fires have been stoked to an even higher level than they were previously. 

It's hard to say who will benefit from the intensification of the Court issue. While it is likely to stimulate the Democratic base, it will also crowd out former Vice-President Biden's primary issue—Trump's handling of the pandemic. For President Trump, since the Court has been more of a core concern for his voters, he may benefit from heightened participation by moderate conservative Republicans and conservative-leaning independents. Then again, some of these same groups may resent his move to fill the seat before the election.

A Trump appointee would likely shift the ideological balance on the Court to 6-3 conservative. Although, history has shown that Republican appointees often move left-ward during their tenure on the bench (e.g., David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Harry Blackmun). That almost never occurs with Democratic appointees. Still, it's the impact on the issues the Court considers that voters will need to assess. Chief among these are likely to be: healthcare, reproductive rights, affirmative action, gun rights, and climate legislation. Beyond these, issues still unseen will be before the Court in the years to come.

So, in just the past few days, the character of the 2020 presidential campaign has changed. While the ultimate impact of the Court issue is still unknown, it will clearly be front and center on Election Day.