This story was published in partnership with The 19th, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom reporting on gender, politics and policy.
President Donald Trump announced in September that he would nominate Amy Coney Barrett to fill Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s vacant Supreme Court seat, making his pick official during an event at the White House Rose Garden.
“As Amy has said, being a judge takes courage. You are not there to decide cases as you may prefer, you are there to do your duty, and to follow the law, wherever it may take you. That is exactly what Judge Barrett will do on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
He continued: “No matter the issue, no matter the case before her. I am supremely confident that Judge Barrett will issue rulings based solely upon a fair reading of the law. She will defend the sacred principle of equal justice for citizens of every race, color, religion and creed.”
Barrett, a Trump-appointed judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, was thought to be a frontrunner for the nomination. She was also among the top contenders to fill Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seat in 2018. Conservatives assured Trump that Barrett would be the female Antonin Scalia, the late Supreme Court justice who Barrett once clerked for.
Barrett, 48, would be the youngest woman to become a Supreme Court justice. The mother of seven children, aged 8 to 19, would also be the first mom on the court to have school-aged children. Her kids, along with her husband, joined Barrett at the White House for the announcement. Trump noted that Barrett is “more than a stellar scholar and judge — she’s also a profoundly devoted mother.”
In her remarks at the Rose Garden event, Barrett acknowledged that she would be “mindful” of who came before her. She went on to praise Ginsburg and her long legal career, noting that she was a trailblazer in a time when women were not welcome in legal careers. “She not only broke glass ceilings, she smashed them. And for that she has won the admiration of women across the country,” Barrett said.
Since Ginsburg’s death, Trump said he would pick a woman to fill the court vacancy. On the surface, Trump’s emphasis on picking a woman appeared to be an abrupt about-face from conventional Republican wisdom.
At the Republican National Convention, party chair Ronna McDaniel said that she was picked for her role not because of her identity, but “because I was the best person for the job.” Trump had for months criticized his opponent, Joe Biden, for vowing to pick a woman as his running mate.
But the shift, political analysts told The 19th, appears to have less to do with a newfound interest in gender equity in politics and much more, they said, with an attempt to win over undecided or Trump-averse women voters in the upcoming election.
Picking a woman “is a kind of very, very baseline of gender in politics,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “I’ve seen very little discussion about the importance of a woman on a court, and that’s why we’re going to nominate a woman. If you hear more of that rhetoric, about why does it matter that we have perspectives from women … then that would demonstrate a shift.”
Instead, she and others argued, the commitment to picking a woman appears political: Trump’s administration has been criticized for being male-dominated, and his support is dwindling with women voters. That includes White women, who played a key role in his 2016 victory. Picking Barrett is likely an effort to bring them back into the fold.
Trump’s full shortlist of Supreme Court nominees reflected a different viewpoint. Of the 44 candidates listed, only 12 were women. The explicit commitment to choosing a woman only emerged when Ginsburg’s death gave Trump the ability to nominate someone before the November 3 election.
“It’s not about being a woman, but about a campaign calculus, given where the numbers are,” said Natalie Jackson, a pollster and the research director at the Public Religion Research Institute. “It made a huge difference when the timing changed.”
The emphasis on women is, she added, also likely an effort to distract from criticisms of Republicans rushing a confirmation process as the election l, after denying President Barack Obama’s pick a hearing in 2016, who was nominated 237 days out.
But when it comes to winning over voters, analysts agreed the strategy appears at the very least ineffective — and potentially counterproductive.
A.J. Delgado, a former senior adviser in the 2016 Trump campaign who now supports Biden, called the selection a rejection of typical conservative values that could instead hurt the president with Republicans.
“I just find it funny how conservatives now openly and publicly embrace affirmative action. I wasn’t aware they were for that,” Delgado said sarcastically. “It’s definitely an identity politics appointment, they’re not even hiding that. They think this will help them.”
Meanwhile, polls show that the majority of voters in general would prefer to have the court vacancy filled by whoever is sworn in come January. And women aren’t an exception.
When Sarah Longwell, a Republican political strategist, held a focus group night with Republican women in swing states who previously voted for Trump, none of them favored the idea of moving forward with a confirmation process before the election, and several said they were more likely to support Biden as a result. Many of them expressed respect for Ginsburg, and were uncomfortable with the idea of a replacement justice swinging the court’s ideological balance further to the right.
And the focus on selecting a woman for the nominee? “They thought it was a transparent play for voters,” Longwell said.
“What they were clear about was, it’s too big a decision to rush through,” Longwell said. “Having talked to tons and tons of women over the last few years — especially on the right — they do not respond to choosing a woman, whether it’s a Joe Biden picking Kamala Harris, or Donald Trump picking a woman for the court. They don’t find that persuasive.”
Plus, the Supreme Court confirmation process isn’t necessarily breaking into the top tier of concerns for undecided women — and not to the extent of determining how they vote.
Women in Longwell’s focus group expressed less concern about the court and more interest in the president’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses in November. It isn’t the first time Trump has suggested illegal electoral processes — recently, he encouraged people to vote twice for him — but voters are now more likely to be paying attention, Longwell said.
The crowded news environment means Barrett’s nomination is far less likely to swing undecided voters, Jackson said.
In fact, the policy implications surrounding a more conservative court — in particular, the likelihood of Barrett voting on the Affordable Care Act and pending abortion cases — increases the odds that a pre-election confirmation process will compel more liberal women to vote, Jackson said. Health law experts say Barrett’s previous writings indicate an openness to voting against maintaining the ACA, which a group of Republican state attorneys general are arguing should be struck down, and likely support greater restrictions on abortion access.
Since Ginsburg’s death, ActBlue, the Democratic fundraising platform, has raised more than $100 million. Liberal women across the country have, since last weekend, already made moves to support Democratic candidates, citing in particular the health care implications of a new justice.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear which undecided conservative voters this decision would bring into the fold.
“If some of this is to try to appeal to women who weren’t voting for him, I’m not sure what group that is,” Dittmar said.
Chabeli Carrazana and Barbara Rodriguez contributed to this report.