A 'Kavanaugh bump' is boosting GOP Senate candidates – but its impact on Trump's ratings is unclear

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump's approval ratings received a slight bump in recent weeks, as the nation focused on the confirmation battle of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
  • But for Republican Senate candidates, Trump's decision to frame the Kavanaugh fight as an attack on all men, has helped to boost their campaigns.
  • "The result of the [Kavanaugh] hearings, at least in the short run, is the Republican base was awakened," said pollster Lee Miringoff.
President Donald Trump introduces U.S. Circuit Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh as his nominee to the United States Supreme Court during an event in the East Room of the White House July 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. 
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

President Donald Trump's approval ratings received a slight bump in recent weeks, as the nation focused on the confirmation battle of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault in September.

But for Republican Senate candidates, Trump's decision to frame the Kavanaugh fight as an attack by Democrats on all men, and not just on Kavanaugh, has helped give their campaigns a major boost.

The Kavanaugh debate's impact on Trump

According to the polling average maintained by Real Clear Politics, during the past two weeks the president's approval ratings have risen to around 43 percent. This is up 2 points from where Trump's approval ratings had been in mid-September, when they sunk to 41 percent, the lowest polling average Trump had seen since March, according to RCP.

For most of the summer, however, Trump's approval ratings in RCP polls sat at around 43 percent. The statistics site FiveThirtyEight.com averaged the president's approval ratings at around 42 percent for the same period, between mid-June and September, when they briefly dropped below 40 percent. 

Among experts, however, the only consensus about how much Kavanaugh helped Trump's poll numbers is that it's unclear.

And despite the emergence of a narrative attributing Trump's slight boost to a so-called Kavanaugh bump, it's difficult to determine how much of Trump's recovery is actually a reflection of the Kavanaugh confirmation fight.

This is because so many other issues might have impacted voters' views of the president, ranging from the strong economy to the burgeoning trade war with China.

As veteran polling analyst Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com wrote on Oct. 4:

Trump's approval ratings have largely followed the same trajectory as the generic ballot, having slumped in early-to-mid September and since rebounded slightly. It's not clear how much of that is Kavanaugh-related, however, as the president was dealing with a lot of other news in August and early September, such as the guilty pleas of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. Merely staying out of the headlines while Kavanaugh was the lead story may have helped Trump's numbers revert to the mean.

But while it remains difficult to gauge the impact Kavanaugh had on Trump's poll numbers, what seems clear is that Trump's handling of the Kavanaugh confirmation has had a real impact on Republican voters.

Trump's impact on the Kavanaugh debate

Ever since California professor Christine Blasey Ford first publicly aired her allegation that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her, on Sept. 16, Trump and Senate Republicans have argued that Kavanaugh is the real victim, and not Ford.

Led by Trump, Republicans have openly appealed to white men, arguing that if an accomplished professional like Kavanaugh can be accused of sexual assault 36 years after the alleged attack, then no man is safe.

"It's a very scary time for young men in America, when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of," Trump said in early October, just days before Kavanaugh was finally confirmed.

It was a theme the president repeated at campaign rallies, including one in Mississippi where he mocked Ford's recollection of her alleged assault. Instead of thinking about Ford, he said, "Think of your son. Think of your husband."

Trump mocks Kavanaugh accuser at Mississippi rally
Trump mocks Kavanaugh accuser at Mississippi rally

Trump's rhetoric appears to have unleashed one of his most potent political weapons --- a sense of grievance among white, male, conservative voters.

This argument was echoed by top Senate Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who called the allegations against Kavanaugh "a shameful smear campaign" through which "Senate Democrats are trying to destroy a man's personal and professional life."

But this line of reasoning did not change voters' minds about Kavanaugh, or about the allegations against him. On the contrary, polls throughout September and October showed that voters' opinions of Kavanaugh only became more polarized as time passed.

Instead, they appear to simply have made Republicans madder. And voters who are angry tend to be more enthusiastic about voting than those who are not.

'The Republican base was awakened'

"The result of the [Kavanaugh] hearings, at least in the short run, is the Republican base was awakened," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, speaking on NPR.

According to a poll this week from NPR and Marist, Republican voter enthusiasm jumped by 8 points between July and October. Several other polls have shown a similar rise in the number of GOP voters who say the November elections are "very important."

Voter enthusiasm translates almost directly into voter turnout. And It's hard to overestimate how important turnout is to Republicans this year.

For most of the summer and fall, GOP strategists have been worried that a crucial group of Trump supporters would stay home on Election Day, lulled into complacency by the strong economy and by the president's frequent predictions that there would be a "red wave" of Republican victories in November.

In reality, historical trends and available polling all overwhelming indicate that the opposite is true, and that there will be a "blue wave" of Democratic wins, fueled by intense voter enthusiasm and a deep dislike for Trump, that will cost Republicans the House majority.

But the Kavanaugh fight may have helped Republicans close this so-called enthusiasm gap.

In red states with close Senate races, the Kavanaugh bump already appears to be having an impact. Polls of voters this week in North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas all showed Republican Senate candidates making significant gains.

This was clearly not lost on Trump, who told attendees at a rally Friday night in Ohio that Democrats attempted to "destroy" Kavanaugh.

As a result of the Supreme Court fight, "We're winning [Senate seats] in states we weren't even going to contest. We're beating people that we weren't even going to contest," Trump said.

There are not, in fact, any Senate seats that Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) were not planning to contest. Still, Trump clearly appeared to be referring to races like those in North Dakota and Tennessee, which have swung right in the wake of the Kavanaugh fight.

"People realize how important the Supreme Court is," Trump said.