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The Supreme Court and the 2016 Elections

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Very important point by Julia Azari about how the Supreme Court vacancy will affect the November elections and their aftermath:

Since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death over the weekend, one of the big debates has been over how the fight to confirm a new Supreme Court justice will reshape the 2016 presidential election. Although some pundits and scholars have, fittingly, written elegant and well-argued pieces about how the election will become a referendum on the Supreme Court and the issues the court is likely to examine in the coming years (abortion, voting rights, campaign finance, state redistricting rules), the actual impact on voting of a protracted fight that fails to fill the Supreme Court vacancy may be marginal — at least in the general election (the primaries may be a different story).

For starters, research shows that the Supreme Court is a well-respected institution but not very important for most voters. The contemporary classic work on Americans’ political knowledge, “What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters,” reports that few citizens can name more than one Supreme Court justice. A 2012 survey found that two-thirds couldn’t even name one.1 So most people aren’t paying attention to the court.

Also, voting has become polarized and predictable — leaving few voters to be swayed by a fight over the court. Political scientists (and economists) have known for some time that the two-party vote can be predicted pretty accurately using the “fundamentals” — economic performance, whether the nation is at war, and the popularity and duration of the White House incumbent. The high levels of polarization in the electorate make persuasion difficult. Some of the contentious issues taken up by the court have cut across party lines in the past — immigration, campaign finance, even abortion. But this is increasingly uncommon in American politics. Party conflict defines disagreements about economic, racial and cultural issues. So, it’s unlikely that campaign messages about abortion, voting rights and affirmative action would change voters’ minds in November.

The Supreme Court fight might provide fodder for some dramatic campaign commercials, but their impact will probably be limited.

I’ve already lost count of the number of pundits who have suggested that Scalia’s death will make the 2016 elections a “referendum” on the Supreme Court or some such. But it’s nonsense. The effect will be very marginal.  Not only the Supreme Court but issues like abortion and especially campaign finance are low-priority issues in federal elections.  The vacancy might (or might not) motivate some voters to come out. It might move a few of the relatively small number of actually swing voters. If a blue-state Senate race is close enough, a marginal effect might matter. But that’s it. Ayotte, Kirk, et al. damned well could still win even if their obstructionist behavior is, in itself, unpopular. General elections aren’t referenda on anything.

And this is why there will be a constitutional crisis over Supreme Court nominations eventually even if it can be avoided in 2017. McConnell has simply figured out what you can get away with. It was probably better for the country when congressional leaders believed in (or acted as if they did) the noble lie that voters care about Getting Things Done and procedural stuff like a Supreme Court that can resolve circuit splits. The problem for the country going forward is that McConnell isn’t wrong.

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