Every four years around this time, political observers become breathless in anticipation of an “October surprise,” an event or disclosure or a gaffe that will change the dynamic of the upcoming US presidential election. And it is almost a given something will come up to shake things up.
2016 had two so-called “surprises”: Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, released on October 7, and the FBI reopening their investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails on October 28.
This year’s October surprise arrived a month early: the death of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the impending political war over filling her vacancy on the court. Of course, everybody wants to know how this will affect November’s presidential and congressional elections, but the short answer is: nobody knows.
For the clearest sense of how this might all play out, cut through the noise of the politicians and talking heads and look closely at voters’ reactions in the coming weeks to Trump’s choice and the subsequent nomination battle.
Leading up to this moment, there has been little indication of how a Supreme Court fight might influence the vote. A Fox News poll released last week showed that likely voters trust Democrat Joe Biden over Trump, 52 to 45 percent, to do a better job with Supreme Court nominations.
The New York Times last week asked voters in three battleground states who are undecided or could change their minds who they preferred to choose the next Supreme Court justice – they preferred Biden over Trump 49 to 31 percent.
However, until voters are asked by pollsters what they think about this development and the subsequent fallout, all we can do for now is watch the political players.
Their strategies will be calibrated not only for a long-term political advantage, as Supreme Court appointments usually are, but also for a short-term electoral advantage, something the US has never seen this close to a presidential election.
There is no question this is an opportunity for Trump to change the focus of the election away from voters’ negative reviews on his performance as president and his handling of the pandemic and racial justice issues.
It is almost certain he will make his choice and this process one of, if not the, main focus over the next six weeks. But what is not clear is which strategies he will adopt regarding his nominee and the subsequent fight over that choice.
Trump had announced a lengthy public list of potential nominees before Ginsburg’s death and said on Saturday he would nominate a woman. But will he choose one to placate his unwavering conservative base, promising them a 6-3 conservative-leaning court for the next generation?
Will he pick someone who will emphasize his divisive, us-versus-them, culture-war campaign strategy or someone he and Republicans can try to sell to voting blocs with whom he is underperforming, such as independents, suburban women and older voters?
As for the pace of the nomination process, will it be rammed through before election day or will Trump and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell try to hold a vote after the election to allow embattled incumbent Republicans fighting in Senate battlegrounds to defer making up their minds until the electoral pressure has eased?
Will Republicans even have the full support of their Senate ranks? It only takes a few out of their 53-47 majority to create significant problems for confirming Trump’s nominee.
As for Democrats, they have no immediate legislative or procedural tools at their disposal, so at this point, the focus will be on vociferously arguing that Trump and the Republicans are imperilling the country by trying to ram a nominee through.
They will talk about Republicans’ hypocrisy on blocking President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016 because the vacancy was too close to an election, though it was 9 months prior.
They will talk about how abortion rights, immigration, healthcare, LGBTQ rights and civil rights will all be in jeopardy under a 6-3 conservative majority Supreme Court.
And they will surely talk about how just days before her death, Ginsburg dictated this statement to her granddaughter Clara Spera: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
In their effort to honour Ginsburg’s wish, Democratic leaders escalated their rhetoric over the past two days, suggesting they are ready to strike back at the Republicans, maybe not immediately, but down the road.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer issued a direct threat to McConnell: If the Senate Republicans go forth with filling the vacancy, “nothing is off the table for next year”.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when asked if another impeachment of Trump could be used to prevent filling the vacancy, did not respond directly but did say: “We have our options. We have arrows in our quiver that I’m not about to discuss right now.”
With all the uncertainties Ginsburg’s passing and her vacant Supreme Court seat create, there is one certainty: every crucial decision and statement made by an elected official will be made while they ask themselves the question: “How does this affect me on election day?” It is the effect of those decisions and statements that will be closely watched to see how voters react to this early October surprise.