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Majority says winner of presidential election should nominate next Supreme Court justice, Post-ABC poll finds

Female lawmakers lined the steps of the Capitol building on Sept. 25, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's casket departed after lying in state. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A majority of Americans oppose efforts by President Trump and the Republican-led Senate to fill a Supreme Court vacancy before the presidential election, with most supporters of Democratic candidate Joe Biden saying the issue has raised the stakes of the election, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The Post-ABC poll, conducted Monday to Thursday, finds 38 percent of Americans say the replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last week, should be nominated by Trump and confirmed by the current Senate, while 57 percent say it should be left to the winner of the presidential election and a Senate vote next year.

Partisans are deeply divided on the issue, though clear majorities of political independents (61 percent) and women (64 percent) say the next justice should be chosen by the winner of this fall’s election, including about half of each group who feel this way “strongly.”

Read Post-ABC poll results

Trump has said he will announce his choice to replace Ginsburg on Saturday, and The Post reported Friday, after the poll concluded, that he has told people around him that he plans to nominate federal appeals court Judge Amy Coney Barrett. He appears to have secured the needed votes to confirm his nominee before the Nov. 3 election.

Ginsburg’s death has jolted the issue of Supreme Court nominations to the forefront of the presidential campaign, but it is not yet clear how a weeks-long push to confirm his nominee will influence voters, who have been heavily focused on the economy and the coronavirus.

In a head-to-head question among all adults, Biden has an eight-point advantage over Trump on whom Americans trust to handle the next Supreme Court appointment, 50 percent to 42 percent. Biden’s edge is a similar 51 percent to 43 percent among registered voters.

The poll suggests the debate over a Supreme Court nomination could help Biden motivate his supporters: A 64 percent majority of Biden supporters say the vacancy makes it “more important” that Biden win the election, compared with 37 percent of Trump supporters who say the same about Trump winning reelection. Biden supporters are 19 percentage points more likely to say the vacancy makes it “much more important” that their candidate win, at 48 percent, compared with 29 percent of Trump supporters.

Those results suggest a reversal in the recent postures of both parties. In 2016, national exit polling found Trump voters were more likely to say Supreme Court appointments were “the most important factor” in their vote, at 26 percent, compared with 18 percent among Hillary Clinton voters.

At the same time, voters pondering the current race say Supreme Court appointments are a secondary issue in their choice for president. The Post-ABC poll finds 25 percent saying the economy is most important in their vote and 17 percent citing the coronavirus outbreak. A smaller 11 percent say the next high court appointment is their top voting issue at this point, in the mix with “crime and safety” at 12 percent, “equal treatment of racial groups” at 14 percent and health care at 15 percent. Democrats are about as likely as Republicans to say the Supreme Court appointment is their top issue.

While Trump and Republicans have sought to make the court a big 2020 issue — in part to change the subject from consistently unfavorable ratings the president has received for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic — Democrats already have signaled their emphasis on the implications of the court battle rather than the process. Biden and others have argued that the fate of the Affordable Care Act rests in the hands of the new court, as well as other issues important to Democrats and independents, including voting rights, abortion rights and the environment.

Americans’ opposition to Trump making an election-year Supreme Court appointment contrasts with attitudes after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in early 2016. That March, a Post-ABC poll found 63 percent of Americans saying the Senate should hold hearings and vote on whether to accept President Barack Obama’s nomination to the court, while 32 percent said the Senate should not hold hearings — which would have blocked the nomination and left it to the next president. The Senate did not grant a hearing to Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, leaving the nomination open until Trump nominee Neil M. Gorsuch was confirmed in 2017.

Biden urged Republican senators to hold off on confirming a replacement for Ginsburg before the election. Yet Biden has not joined with other Democrats in raising the specter of increasing the number of justices on the court overall if he is elected.

Republican senators were presented with their past comments on Supreme Court nominations as they vowed to confirm a new justice. (Video: The Washington Post)

A 54 percent majority of Americans oppose increasing the number of justices who sit on the bench in a way that would give the winner of the election more influence over the court’s makeup. About a third of Americans support adding justices, 32 percent, while 12 percent have no opinion.

About 6 in 10 Republicans and independents alike oppose increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court, while Democrats are relatively split, with 45 percent supporting this and 39 percent opposing it.

The Post-ABC poll suggests the battle over Supreme Court nominations strikes the strongest chord among Americans who are already fervent supporters of Trump or Biden.

At a campaign rally in Fayetteville, N.C., Sept. 19, President Trump told supporters he planned to nominate a woman to the Supreme Court in the coming week. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Among Biden supporters, 59 percent of liberals say the court opening makes it “much more important” that Biden win, compared with 43 percent of moderates. Among Trump supporters, 36 percent of conservatives say the vacancy makes Trump’s reelection “much more important,” compared with 20 percent of moderate-to-liberal Trump backers.

There are gender and age gaps among Biden supporters: 54 percent of female Biden supporters say the Supreme Court opening makes it much more important that Biden win, compared with 40 percent of men who back Biden. And while 59 percent of Biden supporters ages 65 and older say the vacancy left by Ginsburg makes it much more important that Biden win, that drops to 42 percent of Biden supporters under age 40. Younger adults are historically much less likely to vote.

This Post-ABC poll was conducted Sept. 21 to 24 among a random national sample of 1,008 adults, with 75 percent reached on cellphones and 25 percent on landlines. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; the error margin for results among Trump supporters and Biden supporters ranges from 5 to 5.5 percentage points.