Around five or six hundred traumatic public events ago — which is to say last fall — Republicans declared Democrats would live to regret that they pushed for women accusing now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault or misconduct to be heard. The so-called “Kavanaugh effect,” they said, would galvanize Republicans, including Republican mothers of sons, who would agree with Donald Trump that “it’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.”
This narrative changed little after Kavanaugh was confirmed to the highest court; indeed, when Republicans held onto the Senate a month later, Lindsey Graham tried, unsuccessfully, to make #KavanaughsRevenge happen as a hashtag, writing of vanquished red state senators who had voted against Kavanaugh, “Hopefully this resounding rejection of the smear campaign by voters will make it less likely that this will occur again in the future.” As recently as this month, the New York Times reported that Trump may have nominated accused harasser Hermain Cain to the Federal Reserve’s board of governors because he hopes to get some of that Kavanaugh-esque rage-bait to distract his base from investigations by House Democrats
Even as a matter of simple electoral politics, the truth was more complicated. Yes, Democrats who opposed Kavanaugh lost in ever-redder Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota, and Florida, but voting “no” didn’t cost Sherrod Brown his seat in Ohio, or Jon Tester his in Montana, both states Trump won. Crowing about the “Kavanaugh effect” requires ignoring that Democrats won a controlling 40 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. But that’s just one election, which is not the only way to consider the effects of what it meant for Christine Blasey Ford to, in her own words, “suffer through the annihilation” of testifying about what she says Kavanaugh did to her in high school. Though the unyielding chaos of our time means that we have scarcely any time to process anything, truly understanding what those hearings meant requires looking deeper, and for longer.
That’s what makes a new report by PerryUndem, a nonpartisan public opinion research firm based in Washington, D.C., so fascinating. The firm conducted a wide-ranging survey of 1,319 registered voters in late December. They asked: What did watching Ford and Kavanaugh’s conflicted testimonies drum up for people watching? Whom did they believe? Did they think differently about women in power, or about women who speak out about sexual assault? Some of this ground was covered by pollsters immediately after Ford’s allegations came to light in late September, or after Kavanaugh was confirmed in early October. But PerryUndem’s research provided the opportunity for find out what people thought when they’d had the chance to process what happened, and what they had done about it.
What they thought, by a margin of 16 points, was that Ford was telling the truth — a number that had gone up by 9 points compared to a poll of 1,111 voters Quinnipiac conducted right after she and Kavanaugh testified. (In 1991, Anita Hill’s testimony that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her actually made people support him more, and one poll indicated Americans believed his account over hers by nearly 20 points.) More than half said they believe Kavanaugh lied under oath about his teenage years; about half have a negative impression of him.
What they did, mostly, was vote for Democrats. Ultimately, PerryUndem concludes that the Kavanaugh hearings may actually have helped Democrats more than Republicans, noting that “feeling unfavorably toward Justice Kavanaugh motivated people to vote for the Democratic candidate for US House of Representatives — above and beyond typical factors, such as party affiliation.” (Although there was a similar effect with people who liked Kavanaugh being motivated to vote for Republicans, the net impact for Democrats may have been greater, because 50 percent of voters said the hearings made them think about how underrepresented women are in government, and were twice as likely to vote for Democrats as a result.)
It turns out, though, that there was a Kavanaugh effect à la Trump’s fulminating — it just mainly existed among Republican men. PerryUndem’s data suggests that the Kavanaugh hearing made Republican men more sexist and less likely to believe women who say they were assaulted. In a 2017 survey the group conducted focusing on #MeToo, 80 percent of Republican men said they were now more likely to believe women making accusations. After Kavanaugh, that number has sunk by 21 points. The Kavanaugh hearing was also more likely to make Republican men think sexism is exaggerated in our society: In 2017, 47 percent of Republican men agreed that “most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist.” A year later, after Kavanaugh, the number jumped to 68 percent. And the number of Republican men who agree that sexism is a problem in our society went down.
The silver lining? The Kavanaugh hearing may have opened a wedge between at least some Republican women and men. In 2016 and 2017, Republican women and men’s views on gender equality were pretty similar. But after Kavanaugh, PerryUndem found “a little divergence” between GOP men and women on questions like whether sexism is a problem for our society, whether elected officials should work on issues related to women’s equality, or whether the country would be better off if more women were in office. Republican women also seemed to become more skeptical of male leaders after Kavanaugh: In 2016, 31 percent of Republican women said they felt men made better political leaders than women. In 2018, that dropped to 11 percent. It may not be much — you can ask Hillary Clinton about where defections from GOP women can get you — but in the face of the radicalized Republican man, it’s something.