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Scenes from a Supreme Court Focus Group

Talking with nine swing-state voters who went for Trump in 2016 about the coming SCOTUS fight.
September 25, 2020
Scenes from a Supreme Court Focus Group
(Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

How will the coming Supreme Court vote impact the presidential race?

On Thursday, I convened a focus group of 2016 Trump voters—all college-educated women in swing states—to ask them what they thought. What I heard was bad news for Republicans.

Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell seem to hope that nominating a conservative woman to the Court will pull suburban women back into their camp. The group I spoke with indicated the opposite.

Some quick background on this group: It was nine women and I had spoken to them once before (last week on September 16). I reconvened this group because it had an unusually high proportion of undecided voters (Yes, they exist!). Of the nine, one was definitely voting for Biden, one was leaning toward Trump, and seven were very much undecided. But all intended to vote in the upcoming election.

When I logged onto the Zoom call I began the discussion with an open-ended question: “How has your thinking about the presidential race changed—or has it—since we last spoke?”

Their answers surprised me. No one even mentioned the Supreme Court. Instead many of the women volunteered that they were leaning much more toward Joe Biden because of Donald Trump’s recent refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power.

Their disgust was palpable.

As one woman said:

I’ve been hearing a lot, especially, about not making it a peaceful transition and it’s just making that bitter taste in my mouth grow a little bit more profound with each passing day. And it gets very frustrating just at the lack of professionalism…But I would say it’s probably pushing me further towards Biden but also pushing me more into looking into the Independent party.

I was caught a bit off guard, because after doing a year’s worth of focus groups, one of the things I’ve learned is that the crazy things Trump says that cause an uproar on Twitter and in Washington often don’t break through to regular voters.

And it’s not anywhere close to the first time Trump has made outrageous norm-busting comments about the integrity of the election. In the last few months he’s suggested postponing the election, encouraged voter fraud by telling people to vote twice, and said he’s entitled to a third term. Why was the transfer-of-power comment different?

I believe the answer is simple: The election is 40 days away and voters are paying closer attention.

When I specifically began to probe the group’s feelings about the Supreme Court, I was again surprised.

My working theory had been that a Supreme Court fight was likely to help Trump slightly, because (1) it sends voters back to their ideological corners and (2) shifts the macro-political environment from a referendum on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus to a fight about process and ideology which has the potential to energize Republicans.

And yet the group didn’t reflect that perspective at all.

The women generally felt that it was unfair and hypocritical for Republicans to move forward with a Supreme Court nomination when they had refused to do so for Barack Obama’s nominee.

As one woman said to much nodding from the group:

Something super similar happened at end of the last presidential term, and there was a big stink made that we don’t do that during an election cycle. So I kinda want to stick to my guns and say we should be consistent. I’m a little bit turned off by all of the Republicans, like, push to make it happen. Because it’s exactly opposite of what they said should happen last time. So it’s actually made me a little bit, like, pushed away from the Republicans a little more.

Another said:

I think it’s energizing people who were already going to vote for him. But for people like me it’s kind of making me want to go even further [away from Trump] because of the hypocrisy. Because I don’t think that it’s right that we should let him do the Supreme Court justice.

Additionally, they felt that a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court should be considered more carefully and not rushed through the process. From one undecided voter:

With the Supreme justice, I’m nervous they’re just going to try to slam someone into that position and rush through it. When someone’s appointed for life I feel like there should be some type of process, some thinking, maybe a little bit of a longer application to work through it before just saying “Oh, hey, we’ve got a seat open; let’s throw a body in it.”

Another surprise to me: A majority of the group said that they prioritized “balance” on the court over it being lopsided—even if it was lopsided in a direction they liked. (As an aside, many of the women expressed deep admiration for RBG. One called her a “badass.”)

The main change in the political environment that several of the women noted was that with a Supreme Court seat in the offing, their Trump-supporting friends and family were really turning up the social pressure to convince they needed to support Trump.

As one of the more socially conservative women in the group noted:

I will say as someone who has very conservative family members, the pressure is on to say that I am supporting and voting for Trump. Especially and particularly since the Supreme Court seat has opened up.

And then, another surprise: The few women in the group who were interested in having a more conservative justice on the Court  viewed picking up this seat as a reason not to vote for Trump: “I’ve got the Supreme Court now I really don’t have to vote for him,” said one woman. “That reason is off the table.”

Others in the group expressed some concern about the nominee being too conservative. In the group, five of the women considered themselves pro-life, four considered themselves pro-choice. (Remember: All of these women voted for Trump in 2016.) This is a reminder that Trump’s 2016 coalition consisted of a significant number of secular Republicans who viewed him as more moderate than the whole of the GOP—which was a selling point to them.

While all of this may sound like good news for Joe Biden, he still has work to do to lock in these women’s support.

I closed out the session by asking, “If the election were held tomorrow who would you vote for?” This time four women said Biden. One said Trump. The rest remain undecided.

Many of the women expressed concern—as they had when I spoke to them last week—about Biden “being up to it.” But they were open to voting for him. Especially, they said, if he seemed strong in the debates and sounded like someone who would reach out to Republican and conservative voters like them.

For everything Biden has done to push back against the excesses in his own party, these voters still aren’t sure whether or not he wants to defund the police or pack the Supreme Court. His message of unity and being president to all Americans still hasn’t broken through to these gettable Republican voters.

But the good news for Biden is: He’ll get the chance to make the case to them directly next Tuesday.

All nine of these women said they will definitely be watching.

Sarah Longwell

Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark.