Vigil at the Supreme Court following death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 9/21/20 Credit: Ted Eytan

With fewer than 40 days left before Election Day, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight gives Joe Biden a 77 percent chance of winning and wresting the presidency away from Donald Trump. In fact, according to calculations by Harry Enten of CNN, “Biden has a better chance (about 45%) of winning 340 electoral votes than Trump has of winning the election (about 25%). Biden’s chance of taking 400 electoral votes is pretty much the same of Trump winning.” The demographic explanation for the state of the race is that Trump has lost a lot of support among white voters.

This point was explored here in early-September in a piece by Robert Shapiro, a former Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs for President Clinton, and it’s reiterated by David Siders of Politico. Polling indicates that Trump has lost support from every kind of white voter, whether male or female, working-class or professional, college-educated or not. This is more than offsetting a slightly rosier picture for him than four years ago with Black and Latinx voters.

Yet, Silver makes a highly contestable point when he argues that “Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the court one month before the midterm elections two year [sic] ago did nothing to stop Democrats from steamrolling Trump and the GOP.”

When Nate Cohn of the New York Times did a post-mortem on polling performance in the 2018 midterms, he noted that they were much-improved at the state level over 2016, when they missed Trump’s strength in several traditionally blue states. Still, the polls underestimated the Democratic candidates in New York and California and overestimated them in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri. What happened is that blue states got bluer and red states got redder. Silver’s post-mortem showed much the same thing, with most of the error in his projections explained by upset Senate and gubernatorial wins for the Republicans in Florida and Mike Braun’s unseating of Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who was leading in most late polls. It’s possible that Kavanaugh polarized the electorate and thereby helped the GOP hold on to enough traditional Republicans to win some statewide races they were primed to lose.

With the startling death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and President Trump’s decision to announce a nominee, we have a repeat of the Supreme Court taking center stage in the election cycle. If the vacant seat polarizes the electorate, it could make it harder for the Democrats to win in red districts and states and affect both the outcome of the presidential election and the battle for control of the Senate.

Consider Mississippi, where the last three presidential polls, dating from April to August, show Trump winning comfortably by 10 or 11 points. Yet,  the most recent poll of the Senate election there shows signs of trouble for incumbent Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith. In former Mississippi member of congress and Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy, she faces a black challenger who she leads, by a single point. The same poll taken in April had her up by 26 points.

The dramatic narrowing of the race is partly attributable to Hyde-Smith’s weaknesses as a candidate. Adam Ganucheau of Mississippi Today reports:

Hyde-Smith, meanwhile, has struggled to raise cash this cycle. Among incumbent senators, Hyde-Smith has raised less than 96 incumbent senators, including Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, who faces reelection in 2024. The three Senate incumbents who raised less than Hyde-Smith have announced they will not seek re-election

If Hyde-Smith is struggling to win enthusiastic support from her base, the death of Ginsburg could change that. It certainly changed things for her opponent:

Espy has raised nearly $200,000 since Ginsburg’s passing was announced on Friday evening, according to Espy campaign sources. That total — a single-day fundraising record for Espy this cycle — is close to one-third of what he raised from April to June.

Outsiders tend to think of Mississippi as implacably conservative, largely indistinguishable from its neighbors. But it has by far the largest black population (37 percent) and, contrary to its reputation for disenfranchising its black voters, a Kaiser Family Foundation study of the 2018 electorate found a higher percentage (78 percent) of eligible black voters are registered in Mississippi than in any other state. Only 72 percent of eligible white voters there are registered.

What makes Mississippi reliably Republican is the inelasticity of its electorate. According to a post-2018 midterm study by Silver, only Georgia and Alabama had less wiggle in their vote. Both white and black Mississippians are nearly impervious to shifting winds and prevailing political narratives.  Yet, if whites begin to abandon the Republican candidates, Mississippi can tip blue faster than any other Deep Southern state.

Trump has been losing white support from every quarter, and Mississippi is no different.  He carried the state in 2016 by nearly 18 points, so a 10-11 point poll advantage in 2020 already shows some serious erosion. Espy closing a spring deficit of 26 points down to a 1 point race is not unrelated to this national trend. But Mississippi is also a deeply religious state with a strong anti-choice majority. The white community there has had a contentious relationship with the Supreme Court ever since the 1954 ruling in Brown v. the Kansas Board of Education. Nothing reminds white voters in Mississippi why they vote Republican more than the battle to win conservative control of the Court and roll back Roe v. Wade.

I used Mississippi as an example to examine a possible Ginsburg effect because it has the starkest racial polarization combined with a clear preference for a big Republican majority on the Supreme Court. The impact might be bigger in the Magnolia State than in places like Montana and Alaska which also have contested Senate elections but where the voters are less religious and more libertarian-minded than in Deep South.

Yet, even in Mississippi, it cuts both ways. Espy’s huge infusion of cash benefits his campaign. Admittedly, almost all of that money probably came from out of state, but it will still have an impact. The problem for the Democrats is that they were already energized while a lot of white Trump voters were drifting away from him. If they come back in the fold over the Ginsburg vacancy, it will make it harder for the Democrats to win red states. Mississippi was always a long shot for both Espy and Biden, but the contests in places like Kansas and Georgia with a lot of social conservatives are probably tougher lifts for the Democrats now.

In 2018, the Democrats over-performed in the House, winning 40 seats. But they suffered a major disappointment in the Senate, and the same thing could happen again, perhaps for the same reason.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at