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Brett Kavanaugh's poll numbers aren't good. Will it matter?

President Donald Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, has the lowest initial net support for confir...

Posted: Jul 19, 2018 2:05 PM
Updated: Jul 19, 2018 2:05 PM

President Donald Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, has the lowest initial net support for confirmation compared with other recent Supreme Court nominees, according to two new polls released this week.

A new Gallup survey shows 41% of Americans want the Senate to confirm Kavanaugh vs. 37% who don't want him confirmed -- a +4% net score. A new Pew Research survey found a similar +5% net score for Kavanaugh. Both net numbers mark the lowest in both of those surveys for recent Supreme Court nominees.

Kavanaugh's score places him alongside failed nominees Harriet Miers and Robert Bork, both of whom didn't end up on the high court. Miers' nomination by George W. Bush was withdrawn after controversy over her lack of experience on the bench. Bork's nomination by Ronald Reagan was defeated on the Senate floor over his judicial philosophy and his role in firing the Watergate special prosecutor.

But will it matter? Of course, voters don't directly decide who sits on the Supreme Court. The US Senate does that. And with a 51-49 split and Sen. John McCain at home in Arizona, Republicans can confirm Kavanaugh as long as the caucus stays united. Still, some Republican senators -- like Maine's Susan Collins, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski and Kentucky's Rand Paul -- are seen as potential no votes.

Further, with midterms around the corner, Democrats like West Virginia's Joe Manchin, Indiana's Joe Donnelly and North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, who are facing tough re-election bids in red states, remain undecided on Kavanaugh for now after already supporting Trump's first nominee, Neil Gorsuch, last year.

One main reason for the low marks for Kavanaugh is record-breaking pushback, in both surveys, from Democrats. Only 16% of people who lean toward Democrats, according to Pew, and 14% of Democrats, according to Gallup, support confirmation, the lowest for the opposing party for any nominee in recent memory.

It's worth noting that previous nominees have seen low support from the opposing party, though not to this extent. A third of Republicans supported Merrick Garland's nomination, a quarter backed Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor and two in 10 Democrats backed Neil Gorsuch, according to Gallup. Republicans who controlled the Senate never acted on Barack Obama's nomination of Garland. After the 2016 election, Trump nominated Gorsuch.

We've seen constituent backlash play a role in tanking major GOP efforts in the US Senate last year, during the efforts to repeal Obamacare from last summer. But Democrats' opposition messaging has been splintered on everything from nomination timing, to the potential reversal to Roe v. Wade to repercussions for the special counsel investigation. At this point, the conventional wisdom seems to expect that his nomination will be confirmed.

Here's what to watch for next: New polling in the coming weeks will show whether support for Kavanaugh stays steady or whether it slips. Gallup points out: "Later polling on the Bork and Miers nominations showed even closer divisions of opinion for them than is seen in the initial measurement of Kavanaugh."

Miers eventually fell underwater and Bork fell to just a +3 net score. With voters in both parties already at or near historical extremes, independents may determine any future movement: They are now essentially evenly split, according to Gallup, even though independents have favored every confirmation for nearly every recent nominee by double-digits.

This Gallup survey was conducted from July 10-15, 2018 among 1,296 adults. It has a margin of sampling error of -3 percentage points; it is larger for subgroups. This Pew Research Center survey was conducted from July 11-15, 2018 among 1,007 adults. It has a margin of sampling error of -3.7 percentage points; it is larger for subgroups.

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