When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday, Marillene Allen, of Edina, Minn., worried that she would be mourning not just an admired jurist but democracy itself.
Ms. Allen, 78, said that she sees the election not as a fight over discrete issues like abortion or taxes or fracking but over a president who is dismantling democratic institutions, including the courts, one by one. “A vote for Trump is a vote for the whole package, and Trump threatens democracy itself,” she said. “There is always a tipping point, and it is very close.”
But Kenneth Devers, 56, a retired contractor from Hardin, Mont., said President Trump and Republicans might as well try to appoint a new justice. The partisan divide, he said, is already so jagged that Mr. Trump and Republicans have nothing to lose and much to gain.
“We might as well just add this to the list of things that make them cry and whine and make snowflake tears fall,” he said of Democrats. “We might as well try to get a justice in there to give us a little more advantage.”
In a nation that felt like it could not get much more divided, the death of Justice Ginsburg and a looming battle to replace her on the court were reminders that things can always get more polarized.
Interviews with more than two dozen voters in 10 states on Friday night and Saturday reflected the stakes for both sides with the possibility of long-term conservative domination of the Supreme Court playing out in the middle of a white-hot presidential race with Election Day 45 days away. Voters’ comments also reflected how Justice Ginsburg’s death had the potential, at least in part, to shift the race from a referendum on Mr. Trump and his handling of the coronavirus to a battle over the court and volatile issues like abortion.
The risk for Republicans in pushing through an appointment before the election — after blocking President Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to replace Justice Antonin Scalia after he died that February — is that it may scarcely lift turnout on the right, where enthusiasm for Mr. Trump is undimmed, while energizing less politically engaged voters in the middle and on the left.
People like Rachel Harris.
In an interview at a clothing store in Bemidji, Minn., where she was working on the afternoon of Mr. Trump’s arrival on Friday for a rally, Ms. Harris indicated she was undecided about who to vote for in November.
But after hearing the news about Ms. Ginsburg, Ms. Harris emailed to say she had made up her mind. “I will be voting for Biden,” she wrote. “I care about my rights, and they will be taken away if Trump continues to be president.”
Mr. Trump’s core supporters viewed the court vacancy as his to fill.
“I do think the president has the right and the responsibility to replace her, and he should do it as quickly as possible,” said Jeff Solper, a 63-year-old electronic supplies salesman from Brookfield, Wis. “If you can’t tell, I’m a Trumper.”
Judicial politics have energized a generation of Republican voters, and the Scalia vacancy in 2016 is widely credited with consolidating social conservative support behind Mr. Trump. Only in the last four years, since Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, blocked hearings and a vote for Judge Merrick B. Garland, whom Mr. Obama appointed to replace Justice Scalia, have Democrats seen a similar focus on the courts.
“Democrats are decades behind Republicans but this packs a uniquely powerful emotional punch for them, which may help make up the difference,” said Adam Jentleson, a longtime Senate Democratic staffer. “We could lose the battle here and win the war, because it could radicalize Democrats to make the structural reforms to rebalance our democracy.”
Voters in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll of Arizona, North Carolina and Maine — states in which critical Senate races will take place this fall — that was taken before Justice Ginsburg’s death, said they trusted Mr. Biden more than Mr. Trump to fill a Supreme Court seat.
In Maine, voters trusted Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump 59 percent to 37 percent; in Arizona 53 percent to 43 percent; and in North Carolina, by a narrower margin of 47 percent to 44 percent.
But what’s not known is whether liberals can match the intensity the right has long developed to vote for officials who promise to appoint conservative judges. One sentiment repeated by several voters on Saturday was that it would be simply unfair for Senate Republicans to swiftly confirm a Trump-appointed justice in the final weeks before an election after refusing to consider Judge Garland four years ago.
Independent voters and wayward Republicans interviewed Saturday saw some nuance in the court decision. Several said the nomination and confirmation should be put on hold until after the election.
“It would be completely dishonest” for Mr. McConnell to try to rush through a Supreme Court nominee given what he said four years ago, said Bryce Wargin, a 31-year-old statistician from Durham, N.C., who voted for the third-party conservative Evan McMullin in 2016.
Brendan Tanner, 23, an independent voter from Peoria, Ariz., said he is leaning toward voting for Mr. Trump but is considering sitting out the election because he sees deep flaws in both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden. Mr. Tanner said it wouldn’t be “fair” to “sneak” in a Supreme Court pick with less than two months to go before the election.
“When you’re talking about a Supreme Court justice who is going to serve until they want to quit or until the end of their life, that’s a huge decision that’s going to affect generations — and that’s something that needs to be considered very carefully,” he said. “I think it should wait.”
And Ed Dannels, a Republican voter from North Cornwall Township, Pa., said a replacement for Justice Ginsburg should be nominated by the winner of the presidential election.
“Trump should look to see who he wants to have, and wait until after the election, and if he wins the election he just pushes forward,” said Mr. Dannels, a 72-year-old retired insurance executive.
Democratic voters viewed the prospect of Mr. Trump and the Republican Senate replacing Justice Ginsburg as an existential crisis. Some echoed calls from the party’s progressive wing for Mr. Biden and Senate Democrats to add more justices to the court if Democrats win the presidency and the Senate.
“The Democrats should just try to do anything they can,” said Dan Schley, a 62-year-old real estate appraiser from Milwaukee. “They have a very weak position, because everything’s in the Senate. It’s a scary time.”
Mr. Schley and other progressives interviewed Saturday bemoaned what they viewed as the disintegration of American political comity. Trump-backed Republicans vying to win power at any cost, including with the court appointment, they said, threatens the entire American experiment.
“The ethical ground into which they dug their heels four years ago in refusing to hold hearings on Merrick Garland will almost certainly be abandoned,” Mary Utz, a 29-year-old psychotherapist from Minneapolis, said of Republicans. “They will simply change the rules. Protecting against this erosion of fairness is precisely why Justice Ginsburg fought to survive as long as she could.”
Mr. Trump’s supporters found little to be gained from waiting. His 2016 victory and the Republican majority in the Senate, they said, amounts to a use-it-or-lose-it proposition, with the party’s political power set to expire after the Nov. 3 election.
Ken Licari, a 53-year-old Republican from the Detroit suburb of Chesterfield Township, Mich., said he sees the inherent hypocrisy in the proposition of Mr. McConnell advancing a vote on Justice Ginsburg’s replacement. But that’s OK with Mr. Licari, a Macomb County man who works in logistics for the Department of Defense.
“Absolutely, it’s hypocritical,” he said. “But it will be good for the Republican Party and good for America.”
And, waiting for shuttle buses outside Mr. Trump’s Bemidji rally Friday night, Trump supporters overwhelmingly said he should act quickly to claim a signal victory. Laurie Christianson, who drove two hours from her home in Moorhead, Minn., offered simple and pointed advice for Mr. Trump and Senate Republicans: “Do it now.”
Reid J. Epstein reported from Washington and Matt Stevens reported from New York. Jonathan Martin contributed reporting from Bemidji, Minn., Jon Hurdle from Philadelphia, Hank Stephenson from Tucson, Ariz., Kathleen Gray from Lake Orion, Mich., Matt Furber from Minneapolis, Kay Nolan from Brookfield, Wis., and Tom Kertscher from Wauwatosa, Wis.