Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation again revealed that profound polarization is, as one observer commented, “ deeply embedded into the current American DNA.” But did his confirmation make the gender gaps grow wider still? And did the confirmation erode the public’s confidence in the Supreme Court, particularly among female voters?
Given that the vast majority of sexual assault victims are women and that the vast majority of those accused of sexual misconduct are men, some may expect that Kavanaugh’s confirmation exacerbated the gender gap.
But of course, gender ideologies aren’t simply and uniformly divided between the sexes; belief in what it means to be a “woman” or a “man” is shaped by religion, party allegiance, region, social group and many other factors. Many women reacted to the confirmation hearings by worrying that their sons would be unfairly accused of sexual misconduct; many men reacted by declaring their support for Christine Blasey Ford, Anita Hill and others who report sexual assault.
Recent research shows that Republican and Democratic women have opposing views on what it means to be a woman and that making gender salient can increase partisan division among women. That’s consistent with political psychology’s findings that partisans interpret political events mainly through the lens of their partisan identity.
So how did Republican women and Democratic men respond to the confirmation?
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Here’s how I did my research
To find out, I designed a study that compares people’s voting preferences and trust in the Supreme Court. We surveyed participants after the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing but before the Senate voted to confirm him, and then again just afterward.
I recruited about 4,600 U.S. residents through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. (Amazon.com founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) They filled out a baseline survey to establish their partisan identity, existing opinions and demographic traits; those located outside the United States were excluded during this process. This baseline survey took place Oct. 2 and 3, while the FBI was looking into the allegations against Kavanaugh after the hearing.
Half the participants, randomly chosen, were invited to a follow-up survey on Oct. 5 (before the Senate floor vote), while the other half were invited on Oct. 9 (after the vote). About 4,000 people responded to the follow-up. The number of respondents who took part in the follow-up was about the same between the before and after groups. Comparing these groups allows us to measure the effects of Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
MTurk respondents are not representative of the U.S. population. To ensure that the findings were not driven by the younger and more well-educated people who tend to be overrepresented in the MTurk platform, I checked whether the results significantly vary by age and by education and found no such evidence. Indeed, previous research suggests that experiments conducted with MTurk samples generally give results similar to studies using nationally representative samples. Given the claims that bots, not real people, are taking MTurk surveys, I made sure that people’s vote choice, partisanship, support for Kavanaugh and demographics were correlated in the expected ways.
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How the confirmation affected vote choice
As political psychology might predict, after the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on an all-but-party-line vote, female survey participants split by party. The confirmation increased Republican women’s intention to vote for the Republican Party by six percentage points, while pushing independent women to the Democratic side by 12 points.
Meanwhile, men’s choices were left unchanged by the Senate vote.
How the confirmation vote affected trust in the Supreme Court
In a recent Monkey Cage post, political scientist Brendan Nyhan suggested that if Kavanaugh were confirmed, “the court’s public standing could start to fracture along partisan lines.” That’s exactly what my survey finds. Going ahead with Kavanaugh’s confirmation despite the controversy significantly deepened partisan divides on how Americans think about the Supreme Court.
That was particularly true among women. Again, Republican women supported the court more after Kavanaugh’s confirmation by nine percentage points, while Democratic women mistrusted it more by 11 percentage points. As a result, the gap between Republican and Democratic women increased from 15 to 34 points.
Men’s confidence in the court didn’t shift as much, although the gap between Republican and Democratic men increased by nine percentage points.
Because Republican and Democratic women’s views of the court changed by about the same amount in opposite directions, the average gender gap in views about the court remained roughly the same.
The bottom line
In short, Kavanaugh’s confirmation was indeed polarizing, as many predicted. But the most pronounced polarization was not between men and women, but between Republican women and non-Republican women.
Some may be surprised that Republican women doubled down on their partisan identities — for perhaps the same reason that many found the decision by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) to vote yes on Kavanaugh particularly disappointing.
But as political scientist Erin Cassese points out, “It’s really important not to characterize women as a monolithic group.” Throughout, conservative women stood firmly behind Kavanaugh in polls and interviews.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation reminded us of how sharply women disagree about how allegations of sexual misconduct should be handled and even about what it means to identify as a woman in U.S. politics today.
Jin Woo Kim is a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College’s Program in Quantitative Social Science.