Put aside all the emotion surrounding Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and the question of whether he did or did not assault Christine Blasey Ford, and ask yourself this: Why hasn’t the White House pulled the plug already? As a matter of both substance and politics, isn’t it utterly crazy that they haven’t?
First, substance: If you’re a Republican, why do you want Kavanaugh on the court? It isn’t because among all the Republican lawyers in America only he is uniquely brilliant enough to produce the outcomes conservatives want. There are dozens of potential nominees who could overturn Roe v. Wade, complete the obliteration of collective bargaining, eviscerate the government’s ability to protect the environment, and whatever else is on the right’s legal agenda. Pick someone else from the White House’s list of other potential nominees, and the legal outcomes would almost surely be exactly the same.
So why are Republicans holding on to him, when not only has he proven himself to have nothing approaching the temperament you’d want in a justice, but each day also brings new accounts from people who knew what a nasty drunk he was as a young man?
One answer is that Republicans have convinced themselves not only that Kavanaugh is the real victim here, but also that the accusations against him constitute one of the greatest injustices in the history of mankind. A line must be drawn, a stand must be made, for the sake of all that is right and good in the world — and especially so the damn liberals won’t win. When you hate your opponents as much as Republicans hate Democrats, giving those opponents what they want today — even if it’s so you can win a more significant victory tomorrow — is utterly intolerable.
Another is that Republicans don’t actually believe that pushing Kavanaugh gently to the side is the best thing for them politically. “He’s too big to fail now,” a source close to the confirmation process told Axios, and the White House has no backup plan because they all assume that there would be a mass revolt of the GOP base if that happened. Those voters would stay home, increasing the changes of a wave election that enables Democrats to take the House and perhaps the Senate.
It’s possible. But here’s what else we know: The key variable in the 2018 election isn’t how motivated Republican voters are. It’s how motivated Democratic-leaning voters are, especially women. It’s hard to imagine that the Kavanaugh affair — with its dramatic standoff between a shouting, red-faced man visibly enraged at seeing his ascension and privilege hit a rough patch, and a woman quietly but insistently sticking up for herself in the face of a national outpouring of rage and abuse — isn’t going to help in this regard.
A new Quinnipiac poll tells this story quite well. It finds that American voters lean against confirming Kavanaugh and lean toward believing Ford over him. But there’s more. We’ve obtained additional numbers from Quinnipiac, and they show college-educated white women in opposition to Kavanaugh by truly overwhelming margins.
This is notable, because despite the fact that college-educated whites sometimes lean Republican, those female voters are widely thought to be important to the Democrats’ chances of capturing the House and/or the Senate this fall, because they are driving the backlash against President Trump.
The Quinnpiac poll finds that voters oppose confirming Kavanaugh by 48-42. But women oppose Kavanaugh by 55-37, and college educated white women oppose him by 58-34.
Meanwhile, overall voters believe Ford over Kavanaugh by 48 to 41. But women believe her over him by 55 to 35, and college-educated white women believe her by 61 to 31.
The new polling also suggests that Trump’s handling of the Kavanaugh story may be helping to deepen the gender divide roiling our politics. It finds that voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of the nomination by 49 to 42. But women disapprove of it by 54 to 36, and college-educated white women are once again driving this, disapproving by 58 to 35.
It’s true that a bare plurality of voters think Kavanaugh has been treated unfairly, by 47 to 43. But women believe Kavanaugh has been treated fairly by 46 to 43, and college-educated white women think Kavanaugh has been treated fairly by 55 to 38.
By contrast, men think Kavanaugh has been treated unfairly by 52 to 41. A majority of men say Kavanaugh has been the victim of a smear campaign, and a majority of women say he has not. One imagines that gender-based recriminations will persist after this is all over, right into Election Day, and well beyond.
Or look at this Pew poll. The number of Republican voters who say they’re more enthusiastic than usual about voting is 59 percent. Which is much like it was in previous wave years for the GOP. What’s different this year is Democratic voters. In 2010, 42 percent said they were more enthusiastic than usual; in 2014, it was 36 percent. But this year it’s 67 percent, a jump of more than 30 points from the last midterm.
It’s the rise in Democratic enthusiasm, not a falloff in Republican enthusiasm, that is the GOP’s problem this year. If Kavanaugh survives and gets confirmed, Democratic candidates will be using this controversy as a way of motivating voters, especially women voters, in this election, but also for years to come. It will be a festering wound — especially when all those rulings on issues such as abortion start coming down — and all they’ll have to do to get their base riled up will be to poke at it.
It may already be too late to avoid that outcome. Democrats may have reached a level of anger that won’t dissipate between now and the first week in November no matter whether Kavanaugh withdraws, is voted down or gets confirmed. But if Republicans think that standing by him is the best way to minimize their losses, they may be in for a surprise.