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Brett Kavanaugh and Negative Polarization

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Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate, while disgraceful on every level, has also worked with its intended audience:

Last Thursday, Brett Kavanaugh directed his rebuttal of Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation squarely at the Republican base. In a partisan diatribe — without precedent in the history of Supreme Court confirmation hearings — Kavanaugh declared himself the victim of a smear campaign waged “on behalf of the Clintons” and funded by “millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.” He treated Democratic senators with open contempt, baldly lying in response to some of their questions — asking indignantly if his interlocutors ever got blackout drunk in response to others.

If Kavanaugh’s goal was to broaden support for his nomination among the general public — and/or, ease the concerns of ambivalent Senate moderates — then his performance made little sense. By portraying himself as an enemy of the “Clintons” and “the left,” Kavanaugh gave institutionalists arationale for rejecting his nomination that didn’t even depend on the credibility of Ford’s claims. And yet, this tactic also gave the Republican base more cause for insisting on his confirmation, as opposed to that of a conservative judge like him. After Kavanaugh’s searing testimony, replacing him with Amy Coney Barrett wouldn’t be a mere inconvenience, but an act of capitulation to Hillary Clinton’s goons.

For the moment, it looks like Kavanaugh’s gamble paid off. After Ford’s testimony, many GOP operatives and commentators began suggesting that they might have to throw Brett overboard; after Kavanaugh’s angry, weepy tirade against the Democratic inquisition, the party rallied behind him. True, Jeff Flake forced a few more days of investigation into the allegations against Kavanaugh, but, by all appearances, that FBI inquiry is for display only.

And now, a new CBS News/YouGov poll confirms that Kavanaugh’s performance had its desired effect on the GOP base. Last week, 69 percent of GOP voters said the Senate should confirm Kavanaugh; after Thursday’s hearing, that figure rose to 75 percent. Meanwhile, 46 percent of Republicans say they would be “angry” (as opposed to merely “disappointed”) if Kavanaugh was rejected.

But among the public writ large, Thursday’s events appear to have had the opposite effect. Last week, 32 percent of voters favored Kavanaugh’s confirmation, 30 percent opposed, while the rest felt it too soon to say. Now, 37 percent oppose, while 35 percent support. This flip to (very narrow) plurality opposition was driven by an eight-point increase in Democratic voters’ disapproval of Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh’s gamble was that marginal Republican Senate votes care more about Republican voters than the electorate as a whole. Regrettably, he is almost certainly right.

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