While President Trump was campaigning, he was well aware that a lot of Republicans were not particularly enthusiastic about his candidacy, so as 2016 wound on, he began embracing a very specific appeal: Remember the Supreme Court.
“We don’t have four more years,” he said in late September of that year in Wisconsin. “They’ll start appointing justices of the Supreme Court. Remember that, Supreme Court.” Over and over, his closing pitch to voters involved some variation of “we’re going to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States.” He went so far as to release a list of possible nominees before the election, a move meant to both assuage concerns over who the onetime Democrat might pick and, secondarily, to reinforce the primacy of that decision in voters’ minds.
Exit polling from the 2016 election shows that a majority of those who saw the president’s ability to nominate justices to the high court as the most important factor in their vote backed Trump.
More to the point, though, 26 percent of Trump voters told pollsters that Supreme Court nominees were the most important factor in their voting, compared with only 18 percent of Hillary Clinton voters who said the same.
Google searches for “Supreme Court” and either of the candidates’ last names consistently showed more interest in Trump than Clinton. Three of the five most common searches from June 2015 to November 2016 related to Trump and the Court were “Trump Supreme Court justices,” “Trump Supreme Court list” and “Donald Trump Supreme Court justices.” For Clinton, only one of the five most searched phrases was that direct. More common was “Hillary Clinton age.”
This trend didn’t only exist among voters. On cable news, Trump’s possible picks generated a lot more conversation than Clinton’s. CNN talked about Trump in the context of the court the least of the three cable-news networks — but it talked about Trump in that context more on average than any of the three networks talked about Clinton and the Court.
Early in 2016, Justice Antonin Scalia died. The sudden vacancy spurred an unusual effort in the Republican-controlled Senate: They blocked Barack Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia in the hopes that a Republican might succeed Obama and appoint a conservative to the bench. It was a long shot, given Clinton’s consistent lead in the polls, but it also served as a steady reminder to voters that the new president would immediately have the ability to fill the Scalia vacancy.
Shortly after Trump was inaugurated, he nominated Gorsuch to replace Scalia, a nomination that was then confirmed by the Republican caucus of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). At that time, Quinnipiac University polled Americans to gauge their opinion about McConnell’s obstruction of Merrick Garland. Most Americans thought it was wrong — including nearly a quarter of Republicans.
But by then, it was too late. Trump and his party used that vacancy and the possibility of others — three or four others, as Trump would constantly say — to mobilize Republican voters.
Did it make the difference? Trump won thanks to 78,000 voters in three states: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. It is, as we’ve noted before, a narrow enough margin that a lot of things could have made the difference.
But let’s answer the question. If the constant emphasis on Supreme Court nominees spurred 78,000 of the 14 million people who cast votes in those states did so to hold a majority on the court, it made the difference.
There were about 6.6 million votes cast for Trump in those three states. National exit polls suggest that 1.7 million of them thought that the court was the most important reason to cast that vote.