6 October 2020

Supreme Court Vacancies and its effect on the US election

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (affectionately referred to as RBG) died last week after serving on the Supreme Court for 27 years.

The death of Justice Ginsburg gives President Trump the opportunity to appoint another conservative judge. With only nine spots on the Supreme Court and an average time serving of 16 years (this number is increasing), the ability to appoint a Justice can mean cementing your values in the Justice system for a generation.

The worry on the political left is the erosion of women’s reproductive rights. Many prominent Republicans have publicly stated their intent to reverse Roe v. Wade, the case that established women’s right to an abortion. The appointment of a conservative Justice to replace RBG would tilt the Supreme Court enough to the right to achieve this goal.

Despite the Democrat and media’s (warranted) groans of disapproval of Trump and the Republicans trying to fill the slot before year end, it is his right as President…election year or not.

But how might this affect President Trump’s chances at the polls this November?

Firstly, a Reuters poll found 62% of Americans believed the Supreme Court vacancy should be filled by whoever wins the November election. Trump is not following that directive but that is unlikely to deter his base. Republican voters, especially evangelists, are expectedly excited by this Supreme Court development, but it is unlikely that such a divisive topic as abortion, which is essentially what this boils down to, will be what shifts undecided moderate voters towards Trump.

Hard-line positions usually do not encourage moderate voters. Republicans know this and have been trying to use this in their favour by painting the Democrats as having been overtaken by the radical left. On this topic though, they may come out looking more extreme.

For Biden and the Democrats there is already clear evidence of an increased fervour after Justice Ginsburg’s death; record donations of up to $90m to democratic candidates across the country for Senate positions and the Presidency just days after her death. Biden’s base and youth voters have been energized by this.

In the 2016 election, around 50% of those aged 18-29 years old voted. The increased focus on hot topic social issues like abortion could greatly increase the proportion of this age group that turn up at the polls. The youth are typically more liberal on social issues so it could be a good sign for Biden and the Democrats who have struggled to excite youth turnout once Bernie Sanders was off the circuit.

Having said all this, the election in 2016 was much the same: Trump versus an establishment Democrat candidate AND a Supreme Court vacancy to focus voters’ mind (Justice Scalia died in early 2016)…and we all know how that turned out.

The Supreme Court issue also serves as a great distractor for Trump against the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that has seen just over 200,000 American deaths. It would be better for him if the electorate forgot all about that.

There is also the view that the Supreme Court could divert the attentions of the American legislature away from approving the fiscal stimulus, introduce greater uncertainty to the outcome of the forthcoming Presidential election and that the lack of an approved fiscal stimulus and heightened uncertainty could have a negative effect on the US stock market.

Rheanna Filmer, Research Assistant


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