The straw poll on the whiteboard at the Republican party office in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, showed the US Supreme Court winning by a landslide. Volunteer Earla Mae Clearmont was tallying votes before the 2016 election that brought President Donald Trump to power, and packing the country’s top court was the number one election issue for Republican voters in this rural town.
Four years later, their dream has come true. Over the weekend Mr Trump nominated ultra-conservative jurist Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat vacated by liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died this month. The US Senate looks likely to confirm that nomination before election day on November 3, creating a potentially transformational conservative majority of 6-3 on the court.
Elkhorn’s straw-poll voters in 2016 never imagined Mr Trump could fill three Supreme Court vacancies in four years. But, in the coronavirus era, do voters in Wisconsin, an important swing state for the presidential race, care more about the Supreme Court than the pandemic?
If Ms Barrett has already taken her seat by election day, will that drive Republicans to the polls in glee, or Democrats to the polls in horror? Will Democratic African-American voters, whose low turnout helped Mr Trump gain victory in 2016, be galvanised to rise up by casting their ballots?
Mr Trump won Wisconsin by less than 23,000 votes in 2016. A poll last week from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows him trailing Democratic rival Joe Biden, with 46 per cent support among likely Wisconsin voters behind Mr Biden’s 50 per cent. But pollsters say the difference is not statistically significant so it won’t take much to put either candidate over the top.
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In that poll, which straddled the period when Ginsburg died, the court scarcely moved the needle as an issue for voters in three battleground states including Wisconsin. Just 3 per cent of likely Biden voters, and 7 per cent of likely Trump voters, ranked the high court as the most important issue.
“I don’t think [Ginsburg’s] passing will cause [African Americans] to change their minds one way or the other,” says Angela Cunningham, an African-American lawyer and Wisconsin Democrat. Like Wisconsinites on both sides of the political divide, she thinks even the most dramatic Senate confirmation hearings will heighten the intensity of feeling only among already highly committed voters on both sides.
But confirmation hearings could have an important indirect effect, says Chris Budzisz, an expert on Midwest politics at Loras College in Iowa. “I don’t think the average voter will make this the reason they come off the sidelines,” he says. But the issue could have “secondary effects”, he adds, such as boosting fundraising for both sides. “And the dollars raised will not only go to messaging about the court, they will go to other issues. That could have an impact.”
Kim Travis, Republican party chair for Wisconsin’s first congressional district, which includes Elkhorn, says she thinks the nomination will push voters to reward the president for doing what that 2016 straw poll asked him to do. Will it knock the pandemic off the issue list? “It wasn’t on the list,” she says, adding that in all the calls she has made to swing voters “not a single voter has raised coronavirus” even though Wisconsin’s Covid-19 positive test rate is more than three times the national average.
“I think the economy is huge, and now 100 per cent it’s law enforcement and security, most people do not want to defund the police,” she notes, referring to looting following anti-racism protests in nearby Kenosha and activist demands that police departments be “defunded”.
Steve Doelder, Democratic chair in Walworth County, where Elkhorn is located, says “Democrats are going to crawl through glass and fire to vote”. The Supreme Court “is just another match lighting people up”.
Ms Cunningham, who works in Kenosha county, where Mr Trump won by 238 votes in 2016, says the Supreme Court matters to Kenosha voters — but other things matter more. “Trump is playing into people’s fears” about racial unrest and that may be topping the straw poll for Republicans in Wisconsin this year. “That is going to give him a shot at winning,” she says.
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