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Supreme Court battle after Ginsburg's death could fracture Trump's coalition

Analysis: Biden has a chance to win back more former Obama supporters who backed Trump in 2016 — if he drives the right message.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump attends a campaign event in Fayetteville
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Fayetteville, Ark., on Sept. 19, 2020.Tom Brenner / Reuters

Since Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, several analysts have speculated the colossal Supreme Court fight to come will help President Donald Trump by rallying traditional GOP voters and shifting the focus of 2020 from mismanagement of Covid-19 to a more straightforward partisan cage match.

That's possible, but given the potential for the court to take a sharp right turn, a pre-election Supreme Court fight carries much bigger risks for Trump than the Brett Kavanaugh brawl did in 2018.

Namely, there's potential for Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act to drive a wedge in Trump's coalition. In 2016, much of his support came from voters who disliked Hillary Clinton, liked Trump's rhetoric on trade and immigration, but consider themselves abortion rights supporters — especially nonevangelical, blue-collar women. And, these voters remain up for grabs in 2020.

The 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), a 50,000-plus person national survey conducted by YouGov, measured voters' attitudes toward the abortion issue on a six-question scale. Specifically, it asked voters whether they support or oppose the following proposals:

1) Always allow a woman to obtain an abortion as a matter of choice.

2) Permit abortion only in cases of rape, incest or when the woman's life is in danger.

3) Ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.

4) Allow employers to decline coverage of abortions in insurance plans.

5) Prohibit the expenditure of funds authorized or appropriated by federal law for any abortion.

6) Make abortion illegal in all circumstances.

I rated anyone who chose the pro-abortion rights or anti-abortion side on four, five or six of these six questions as at least "leaning" toward that position, and labeled voters who split their answers evenly down the middle as having "mixed" views.

Not surprisingly, 74 percent of Clinton's voters at least leaned pro-abortion rights, while only 15 percent leaned anti-abortion and 11 percent held mixed views. But only 65 percent of Trump's voters at least leaned anti-abortion, while a substantial 22 percent at least leaned pro-abortion rights and 13 percent held mixed views. Among third-party voters, views on abortion were almost evenly split.

Although Trump downplayed the abortion issue in 2016 in favor of more populist economic messages on trade and immigration, voters with mostly pro-abortion rights attitudes made up more than a fifth of his support in plenty of battleground states: 25 percent in Iowa; 24 percent in Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania; 21 percent in Arizona; and 20 percent in Ohio and Wisconsin.

Many of these blue-collar, pro-abortion rights voters who supported Trump had for decades voted for Democrats because they saw Republicans as a coalition of corporatists and "Bible thumpers" who sermonized against abortion and same-sex marriage. But in 2016, they didn't mind Trump as much because they saw him as an anti-elite outsider who didn't hold rigid positions on those wedge social issues.

Today, there may be an opportunity for Joe Biden to win back many of these Obama-to-Trump defectors by tying Trump to the "D.C. swamp": Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the establishment Republicans who — as Democrats argue — want to end Roe v. Wade, cut taxes for billionaires and strike down the Affordable Care Act during a pandemic.

The populist attack that, according to polls, should scare Republicans the most probably goes something like this: "In 2016, Trump promised to drain the swamp. Instead, he became the swamp: He let Mitch McConnell and stock-dumping, ultra-far right GOP senators write his entire domestic agenda." But today, few ads by Biden or Democratic outside groups have attempted to make this link.

It's also not clear whether groups like the Lincoln Project, whose ads mainly feature over-the-top anti-Trump messaging that amounts to catnip for base Democrats and "Never Trump" Republicans, understand this type of swing voter.

Bottom line: The millions of Obama-to-Trump voters who will decide the 2020 election in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and elsewhere tend to tune out attacks on Trump as a divisive or bad person. But they've long despised McConnell, "establishment" Republicans and the religious right — and a Supreme Court fight gives Democrats an opportunity to rip Trump's coalition open.