JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – The Republican Party headquarters in this former steel town was buzzing Saturday as supporters filed in to pick up Trump 2020 stickers and yard signs, including ones declaring: “Your pro-life vote matters."
But even as coverage of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death played on Fox News on an office television, the political fight brewing in Washington over her replacement felt like a world away to some.
“I don't really pay attention to the news much," said Dan Thomas, a 24-year-old from Johnstown, in western Pennsylvania, after he filled out paperwork to vote for the first time. It wasn't the court that brought Thomas in. (When a friend tried to convince him it was a big deal, he shrugged: “Oh, OK. Whoopie.”)
Instead, he's convinced that President Donald Trump is fighting for working-class voters like him in a tough economy and is “the best shot this country has."
In dozens of conversations here and in other battleground states since Ginsburg's death of cancer Friday, the bitter debate over the court was buried under a pile of other, more pressing concerns. Most voters were quick to name health care, the economy and personal complaints about Trump, a Republican, and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, as driving their votes — well before the Supreme Court vacancy. And those who were fired up about the issue were already strongly committed to voting for either Trump or Biden, reflecting stark polarization in a country where only a sliver of the electorate remains undecided.
With so many people already locked in and in the middle of so much upheaval — from the ongoing pandemic to the economic recession to the reckoning over racial justice and policing — the interviews suggest the vacancy could be a less decisive factor than it might have been in a less extraordinary year. And they revealed the challenge ahead for both parties as they try to use the fight to their advantage.
To be sure, the court debate could shift quickly once Trump names his nominee Saturday and specifics emerge about her personal background and past decisions. For now, the key question appears to be whether voters approve of Trump and Republicans' rush to fill the seat.
“It depends on how it’s framed,” said Frank Luntz, a longtime Republican pollster. “If it looks like a blatant political power play (by Trump and Republicans), it will help the Democrats. If it’s framed as helping the court do its job, it will help the Republicans. Framing is everything.”
Both sides believe the fight could play to their advantage, with Trump's campaign banking on a confirmation battle energizing conservative voters who may be on the fence about Trump but care deeply about the courts.
Biden’s aides concede that's likely the case, but also believe it will energize their voters, including women and young people, who may be especially concerned about future court decisions affecting abortion rights and climate change. As evidence, they point to the record-breaking $91 million-plus they raised in online donations in just over a day after Ginsburg’s death.
Biden’s team also plans to tie the vacancy to the fight over health care. One week after the election, the Supreme Court is due to hear a case — backed by the Trump administration — that could do away with the Affordable Care Act.
Several polls ahead of the 2016 presidential election suggested Trump supporters were at least somewhat more likely to say Supreme Court nominations mattered to them. But more recent polling shows the gap between Trump and Biden voters has narrowed – or even reversed.
Before Ginsburg's death, a Pew Research Center poll found roughly as many Biden backers, 66%, as Trump supporters, 61%, listed Supreme Court appointments as “very important” to their choice. And an August CNN poll found 47% of Biden supporters, but just 32% of Trump supporters, labeled nominations as “extremely” important to them.
Trump and his aides have long pointed to the contentious clash over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination just before the 2018 midterm elections as a seminal moment, believing it energized Republicans and helped the party expand its Senate majority, even as it lost control of the House.
But AP VoteCast polling of the electorate found that voters who said that court fight was “very important” to their vote backed Democrats over Republicans in congressional races by a wide margin, 58% to 42%.
Suzana Hutz, a 70-year-old retired software engineer from Tempe, Arizona, said she didn’t need any extra motivation to vote against Trump — a vote she’s been waiting to cast for the last four years. She’s already giving money to Biden and local Democrats, including Mark Kelly, who is running against Republican Sen. Martha McSally in a race that could help decide control of the Senate.
If Republicans confirm another Supreme Court justice, “this country is going to go backwards 50 years in all the social programs and everything that they accomplished so far,” Hutz said.
For others, the fight was persuasive. James Kirkpatrick, an independent, held his nose four years ago, he said, when he voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Up until recently, he supported the Green Party’s candidate for president, Howie Hawkins.
But with a Supreme Court vacancy, he again is swallowing hard to support Biden in November. He worries that Trump’s court pick could thwart rights for Native Americans, women and communities of color, as well as side with corporate interests at the expense of working-class Americans.
“I’m voting for Biden as a lesser of two evils, when it comes to the Supreme Court pick,” said Kirkpatrick, a 24-year-old state worker in Florida’s capital city of Tallahassee.
Republicans, he said, should follow the precedent they set when they refused to confirm President Barack Obama's final nominee to the high court, Merrick Garland, arguing it was too close to an election to start the confirmation process. Obama nominated Garland in March 2016.
“If you’re going to start a precedent, you should stick to it,” he said.
But many Trump supporters backed the president’s push to fill the seat now, hypocrisy be damned.
John Fischetti, a 51-year-old swim coach living in Raleigh, North Carolina, said he thinks replacing Ginsburg now will inflame tensions at a time when political division is already so high. But he still backed Trump in nominating someone before the election, when control of the Senate and presidency lies with the Republicans.
“It’s his right. He’s the president. That’s what they do,” Fischetti said as he waited in line for more than 2 1/2 hours for a Trump rally in Fayetteville on Saturday.
Mark Leonard, 64, a Republican who lives on a livestock farm near Holstein, Iowa, said he “can admit there may have been a bit of a stretch in 2016" when Republicans declined to consider Obama's nominee. But, he added, that's politics.
“Either party can throw their weight around, and sometimes you’re going to get beat by it when the other party has more weight. That’s just the way life goes," he said. "Is life fair? No, not really.”
Meanwhile, with so much else going on, the battle is already growing tiring to some.
“I just think it’s a very unfortunate thing to have been thrown into the polarized divide that the country has. It’s just one more thing,” said Gloria Mazza, 67, a Republican activist and Trump supporter who lives in Clive, Iowa, a liberal-leaning, growing suburb west of Des Moines of about 17,000 people.
Back in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Fran Jacobs, a 76-year-old retiree, was similarly dispirited by the fight ahead. The Biden supporter said she and her friends recently had an “RGB party” to watch the Hollywood movie about Ginsburg’s life. Still, she doesn't expect the vacancy to affect the race.
“No, amongst my friends, we’ve talked about it,” she said. “She’s my hero now. ... But it won’t make any difference."
Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper in Tempe, Ariz., Bobby Caina Calvan in Tallahassee, Fla., Bryan Anderson in Fayetteville, N.C., David Pitt in Des Moines, Iowa, and Alexandra Jaffe and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed to this report.