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Voters say Ginsburg's death has reshaped the election — they're just not sure how

Republicans think it will turn out the base. Democrats say it will further motivate their supporters. Undecided voters say they always knew a vacant Supreme Court seat was a possibility.
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HARTLAND, Wis. — The news that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died spread quickly Friday night as hundreds of supporters of President Donald Trump gathered at a "MAGA Meet-Up" in a neighborhood park in a critical suburban county outside of Milwaukee.

Supporters pulled out their phones, nudging friends to look at their news push alerts. Some clinked beers. Others let out sheepish grins. A few, feeling unrestrained in a sea of devoted Trump fans, cheered.

"This changes everything," a woman said as she loaded a stack of "We Back The Badge" yard signs into her car.

Image: MAGA meet-up Milwaukee
Trump supporters gathered at a "MAGA Meet-Up" in a Milwaukee suburb Friday night as news broke of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's death.Lauren Egan / NBC News

In conversations with more than a dozen voters in Waukesha and Ozaukee County, two suburbs of Milwaukee critical to the presidential race, Wisconsinites say Ginsburg's death has undoubtedly shifted the election. But no one can agree on whom it benefits.

Trump supporters say the vacancy on the Supreme Court will draw out their base, while Democrats say it will intensify the importance of electing Joe Biden. Undecided voters say they had already anticipated that Ginsburg would retire under a potential Democratic administration and that her death hasn't drastically affected their assessment of the candidates.

"I am devastated," said Deb Postl, 64, a retiree from Port Washington, a Milwaukee suburb that sits on Lake Michigan. Postl said she and her husband were at home watching Netflix when she started to get messages from her friends, most of whom are liberals, that Ginsburg had died.

"I think my friends have been very motivated to begin with. I really don't know how we could be more motivated, but maybe this does it. I am terrified that we're going to continue this spiral to hell if Trump wins again," Postl said.

Carol Lisowski, a Trump supporter in her early 50s, said she was confident a Supreme Court vacancy would only help keep Ozaukee County red.

"I was voting for Trump no matter what," she said as she left the local farmers market the morning after Ginsburg's death. "I think this might help people go out and vote — people who maybe weren't sure about Trump and how he talks sometimes, which I do understand."

But her husband, Rob Lisokwski, who didn't vote for either major-party candidate in 2016 and is still undecided, said the open seat wasn't helping him get any closer to a decision.

"It's going to be a s---show. It's already a mess," he said of the fight in Washington to replace Ginsburg. "It's not a deal breaker. It doesn't really push me either way. It was always kind of obvious that she was holding out to retire if Biden won."

Conventional wisdom says the Republican Party stands to gain when the Supreme Court is a salient voting issue, with many base voters motivated by the prospect of overruling Roe v. Wade. Some political strategist view Brett Kavanuagh's nomination fight just weeks before the 2018 midterms as the Republicans' saving grace, allowing them to expand their control on the Senate in what was otherwise a favorable year for Democrats.

But that might not be the case this year. Polling shows that Biden is seen more favorably when it comes to picking the next Supreme Court justice.

In Arizona, Maine and North Carolina, homes to competitive Senate races, more voters said they trusted Biden over Trump to do a better job appointing a justice, according to a New York Times/Siena College poll released last week before Ginsburg died. Arizona and North Carolina are also key battleground states, and Biden leads overall in both states.

In the same survey, voters who either were not backing a major-party candidate or who said they could still change their minds said Biden would be better at filling the next vacancy by an 18-point margin, 49 percent to 31 percent.

A Pew Research poll from early September also showed that 66 percent of Democratic voters viewed the Supreme Court as "very important" in the election, compared to 61 percent of Republicans.

Voters in important swing states outside of Wisconsin, too, said Ginsburg's death was a motivational factor for the November election.

"Her death emboldens me, because I'm afraid of having an additional conservative Justice," said Allan Goldberg, 74, a business owner from south of Miami. Goldberg said he votes primarily for Democrats and plans to support Biden.

Pedro Gonzalez, 50, a flight attendant from Orlando, Florida, said that "as a Hispanic and gay person my biggest fear is that Trump will appoint someone that can shift the future of the country."

"Whatever is in my power, I'm going to do it," Gonzalez said.

Tami Cash, 53, a resident of Punta Gorda in Southwest Florida, is a lifelong Republican who plans to vote for Trump. The open Supreme Court seat has little to do with her support.

"Someone will be nominated very quickly. I don't think anyone's mind will be swayed," she said.

While the Trump campaign might be hoping that the open seat creates an opportunity to shift voter attention away from the president's response to the coronavirus pandemic, Maryann Ebel, an anti-abortion rights Catholic who retired in the Milwaukee suburb of Port Washington, said that wasn't something she could overlook in her choice for president. She plans to support Biden.

"Yes, I am pro-life. But sanctity of life has a lot of facets to it besides abortion. It's not OK to be shooting Black people and saving babies. You have to save them all. And what about the 200,000 people that have died from coronavirus? That just goes against everything I feel about standing for life."

Lauren Egan reported from Hartland, Wisconsin, and Carmen Sesin from Miami.