Christine Blasey Ford’s decision to step forward publicly with her allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh had largely predictable immediate repercussions. Those opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination quickly called for it to be withdrawn. Supporters of the president moved to cast doubt on her story or to belittle it. Donald Trump Jr. shared an Instagram image mocking Ford’s story; a Fox News Channel contributor compared her story of being held down and forcibly groped to the party game “Seven Minutes in Heaven.”
The patterns were so predictable that it seems hard, in the abstract, to evaluate the political ramifications of her coming forward. So it’s worth noting that, even before Ford told her story to The Washington Post, Kavanaugh’s nomination was historically weak.
It’s true that the new story comes fairly late in the confirmation process. Kavanaugh had completed the Senate Judiciary Committee’s interview and a vote was expected this week. From there, the full Senate was expected to vote on his nomination, which for recent nominees has happened fairly quickly.
Ford’s story was first revealed to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in July, before Kavanaugh was nominated. It reached public prominence only last week; Ford came forward Sunday. Again, that’s fairly late in the process — but had it been revealed Sunday, that would have been before the Senate committee’s recommendation was finalized in about half of recent nominating processes.
A particularly analogous process is that of Justice Clarence Thomas. After the Senate Judiciary Committee had offered its recommendation on his nomination, reports emerged of Anita Hill’s interviews with the FBI in which she accused Thomas of a pattern of offensive behavior. It was at that point — much further along in the process than we are now — that Hill testified on Capitol Hill about those alleged encounters.
It was an unusual circumstance emerging in an unusual process. So is Ford’s.
But unlike Thomas, Kavanaugh enters it with particularly low polling numbers. Gallup polling suggests that he has the second-lowest level of support of any court nominee since Robert Bork in 1987. The percentage of Americans who support his nomination is only slightly higher than the number who oppose it, looking at an average of all Gallup polling on his nomination.
Only the nominations of Harriet Miers and Bork joined Kavanaugh in having net support in the single digits. Neither Miers nor Bork was confirmed.
Again, this polling was conducted before the Ford allegations were made public. A Fox News poll last month found that views of Kavanaugh were split about evenly overall.
But that wasn’t the case on gender lines. Men supported Kavanaugh’s nomination by a 13-point margin; women opposed it by a 13-point margin. A Marist-NPR poll in July found that about a third of Americans would be more likely to oppose a candidate for Congress who backed Kavanaugh, about a third would be more likely to support that candidate and for a third it wouldn’t make a difference. Among women, though, 4 in 10 said they’d be more likely to oppose a candidate who supported Kavanaugh.
Kavanaugh’s nomination is already opposed more heavily by women because of concerns about his views on Roe v. Wade. These allegations probably only exacerbate that opposition.
That’s problematic for a party that faces an uphill midterm election in an environment in which politics are heavily viewed through the lens of gender. Although sexual assault allegations aren’t and shouldn’t be strictly the concern of women, it’s likely that the allegations against Kavanaugh will resonate more with women than men. Republicans facing a historic number of women running for Congress are unlikely to be thrilled about having to step up in defense of someone facing the accusations Kavanaugh faces.
There’s a theory that rising to the defense of Kavanaugh will mobilize Republican voters in November. But Republican voters already turn out more heavily in off-year elections. Perhaps infrequently voting Trump supporters will see this as a critical fight, but that seems like a big risk to take.
Kavanaugh’s nomination came after Trump picked him from a public list of possible choices. There are any number of other conservative judges who might step up to replace Kavanaugh and who would be similarly embraced by Trump’s base. A withdrawal of Kavanaugh’s nomination would be a small pothole on the inevitable path to a conservative replacement for former justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
That’s not how Trump operates, though, and the response from the White House has been predictable. Politico reported that people close to the White House “expect the president to go after Kavanaugh’s accuser rather than to turn on the judge.” Which: of course. This is the president who relies on denials of improper activity to maintain reasonable doubt, as in the cases of former Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama and Trump’s former staff secretary Rob Porter.
It’s the president who was quoted by The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward as having told a friend facing accusations of improper sexual conduct: “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women. If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead. That was a big mistake you made.”
For Trump, politics comes down to fights against his political enemies. He may now have to pick between which fight he’d rather lose: The fight over Kavanaugh or the fight over Congress. The odds are good, as he probably realizes, that the fight he’s most likely to win is the Kavanaugh fight, whatever the possible cost to his already low chances of winning the latter.
On Monday morning, the White House released a statement from Kavanaugh. Ford’s allegation is “completely false,” it read.
The fight is on.