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Why Supreme Court politics in 2020 look way different from 2016 or 2018

A fierce political battle is underway over who will replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat and when a vote will take place. CNN's Jeffrey Toobin explains how the Supreme Court cases are decided when only eight justices are seated.

Posted: Sep 20, 2020 7:25 AM
Updated: Sep 20, 2020 4:30 PM


President Donald Trump was likely helped in the 2016 election by the fight over a Supreme Court nomination. Similarly, Republicans were likely aided in the 2018 Senate battle by the nomination and eventual confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

We don't know what the ultimate effect of any Supreme Court battle will be on the 2020 election. Still, we can look at the playing board. It suggests the 2020 electoral calculus has fundamental differences with the electoral math of 2016 and 2018 when it comes to Supreme Court nominations.

Yesterday, I noted that more of former Vice President Joe Biden's supporters have said the Supreme Court was important to their vote than Trump supporters. That's very different from 2016, when Trump backers said the court was more important to their vote than Hillary Clinton backers.

View 2020 presidential election polling

The contrasts go deeper than that, however.

Trump often struggled with rallying the base in 2016. There were points in that cycle when he was receiving only about 75% of the Republican vote in polls. A Supreme Court nomination was the perfect way to get the base to support his cause.

Trump, though, has centered pretty much his entire presidency around appealing to his base. He's done so, oftentimes, at the expense of bringing in more moderate voters to his cause. It's paid off for Trump.

Republicans are backing Trump at very high numbers now. A NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll out on Friday put Trump's support at 94% among likely Republican voters. Our last CNN/SSRS poll showed that 99% of very conservative Republicans were supporting Trump.

In other words, Trump already has the base behind him in a way he didn't at many times in 2016. Any more gains he could make with them would be very limited.

There are distinctions between the 2018 and 2020 Supreme Court nomination showdown as well.

You may recall Republicans picked up four Senate seats and lost two for a net gain of 2 in 2018. This came after Kavanaugh was nominated in late summer and confirmed early that fall.

It does seem like the Kavanaugh nomination was a boon to a number of Republican Senate candidates. Republicans knocked out Democratic senators in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. In all of those states, a majority of voters who said that Kavanaugh was a factor in their vote cast their ballots for the Republican Senate candidate. Those who said it wasn't a factor either split their vote or a majority went for the Democratic nominee.

All of those seats were in states where Trump won by 19 points or more in 2016. That is, they were very red states.

The Kavanaugh hearing, if anything, rallied the Republican base in red states.

In the only purple state where Republicans defeated a Democratic senator (Bill Nelson in Florida), voters who said his vote against Kavanaugh was a factor in their decision were actually slightly more likely to back the Democratic nominee.

The 2018 House elections tell a similar story. Unlike in the Senate, where a limited number of seats is up every cycle, every House seat was up for election in 2018.

House Republicans were not helped by the Kavanaugh hearings.

Democrats' advantage on the generic congressional ballot was in the high single digits before the Kavanaugh hearings and remained as such through the election. Democrats ended up with a net gain of 40 seats in the House.

The 2020 presidential race will be fought on, if anything, more favorable terrain than the 2018 House elections. Democrats don't need to worry about winning a majority of congressional districts. They only need to win a majority of electoral votes.

Likewise, the 2020 Senate terrain is totally different. Only one of the seats Democrats are defending is in deep red territory. That Alabama seat was already in major danger of flipping prior to any Supreme Court battle.

Meanwhile, the Democrats' easiest path to a Senate majority runs through purple states. Democrats' easiest pickup opportunities are in Arizona (a state where the same Republican Senate candidate lost in 2018), Colorado and Maine. Biden is clearly ahead in the polls in all of these states.

The other two best pickup opportunities are in states where Trump is likely either up by a point or two (Iowa) or down by a point or two (North Carolina). In neither state is the Democratic Senate nominee running too far ahead of Biden.

The bottom line is that, while any estimates of what the upcoming Supreme Court fight means for the election are just guesses, 2016 and 2018 are not good road maps to understanding the dynamic in 2020. The situations are quite different.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 282916

Reported Deaths: 3359
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin605241095
Ramsey25467477
Anoka20172216
Dakota19573179
Washington12799108
Stearns1254793
Scott764754
St. Louis763197
Wright683036
Olmsted616033
Sherburne522339
Clay449655
Carver420912
Blue Earth379511
Rice377732
Kandiyohi365915
Crow Wing324131
Nobles298029
Chisago28838
Otter Tail273315
Benton269340
Winona251828
Mower239723
Polk230621
Douglas228929
Morrison215321
Lyon200011
McLeod19289
Beltrami190415
Goodhue180926
Becker178810
Steele17296
Itasca170524
Isanti170216
Todd167412
Carlton161310
Nicollet148223
Freeborn14195
Mille Lacs136530
Le Sueur135010
Waseca131811
Cass12368
Pine12216
Brown121110
Meeker11187
Roseau10143
Martin100620
Hubbard100022
Wabasha9351
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Dodge7980
Chippewa7907
Watonwan7884
Cottonwood7431
Renville73118
Sibley7224
Wadena7166
Aitkin69224
Rock6779
Pipestone67318
Houston6242
Fillmore6150
Yellow Medicine58211
Pennington5576
Murray5433
Kanabec54112
Swift5266
Pope4910
Faribault4901
Stevens4552
Clearwater4456
Marshall4377
Jackson4291
Lake3654
Unassigned35856
Koochiching3475
Wilkin3305
Lac qui Parle3213
Lincoln3171
Norman3166
Big Stone2801
Mahnomen2554
Grant2396
Red Lake1973
Kittson1876
Traverse1340
Lake of the Woods891
Cook600

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 216579

Reported Deaths: 2240
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk32244325
Linn13583162
Scott1055981
Black Hawk10541131
Woodbury9984116
Johnson920835
Dubuque886590
Story656619
Dallas611456
Pottawattamie589167
Sioux356425
Webster345831
Marshall339244
Cerro Gordo332342
Clinton312337
Buena Vista293514
Muscatine273968
Des Moines270616
Warren264810
Plymouth261938
Wapello244071
Jones225313
Jasper208440
Marion196719
Carroll192621
Lee191716
Bremer187212
Henry17257
Crawford170715
Benton162716
Tama149440
Jackson138511
Delaware137221
Washington135813
Boone130711
Dickinson128510
Mahaska123427
Wright11835
Buchanan11249
Clay10964
Hardin109310
Page10854
Hamilton10477
Clayton10455
Harrison102428
Calhoun10237
Cedar102213
Fayette10008
Mills9977
Floyd98614
Lyon9858
Kossuth9675
Poweshiek95512
Butler9375
Winneshiek91510
Iowa89611
Winnebago88023
Louisa82316
Hancock8217
Grundy81711
Sac8077
Chickasaw8014
Cherokee7814
Cass77221
Appanoose7509
Shelby7346
Allamakee73211
Guthrie72415
Humboldt7205
Mitchell7204
Union7166
Emmet71424
Franklin68820
Madison6614
Jefferson6441
Palo Alto6114
Unassigned5961
Keokuk5537
Pocahontas5442
Howard5089
Greene5070
Osceola5031
Clarke4644
Ida45510
Davis4415
Taylor4352
Montgomery43410
Monroe43112
Adair4218
Monona4032
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Worth3410
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