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By Jay Cost

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The Penny Ante Stakes of the Sotomayor Nomination

On Monday in the Washington Post, Bill Kristol suggested that the political impact of the Sotomayor nomination would be slight: "Obviously, the debate over Sotomayor is important in its own right. And obviously there could be surprises over the next week. But I think the political impact of what we're seeing is likely to be minimal."

I agree entirely with this. I have a few points of my own I'd like to add. First, Sotomayor is not expected to shift the balance of power on the Court, at least for major issues like abortion. So, we should not expect many big policy chances as a consequence of this nomination.

Second, I don't think much of the argument that this nomination solidifies Obama's standing with Hispanics. Ronald Reagan's nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor did not stop Bill Clinton from opening a huge gender gap in 1992 and 1996. A Court nomination that targets a particular group may be a political payoff, but it is merely a symbolic one. It's not a material benefit, which suggests it is not as powerful. It reminds me of an old tactic employed by some urban machines when their resources were running low and groups still had to be appeased: they would do something like throw an ethnic pride parade. Nobody was made materially better off by such an event. It just made people feel good, and hopefully more inclined to support the machine at the ballot box. This was a weak benefit, a poor way to win votes, and it is not a huge surprise that most of these machines have since been toppled. Similarly, the nomination of Sotomayor might be a symbolic benefit to the Hispanic community, but it does not look like the White House can deliver the more substantial benefit of immigration reform this year.

Third, if this is meant to be a symbolic benefit, it's not a great one. The Court is the most private branch of the federal government. Sotomayor will be confirmed, then effectively disappear from the public radar. Ideally, you'd want a symbolic payoff to be highly visible and salient - something like a parade - so that people feel the emotions of the symbolism very strongly when it comes time to vote. The Supreme Court is not the venue for such a payoff! It is hard to imagine Sotomayor having any kind of long-term effect on voters, at least those who might otherwise be inclined to vote Republican.

My guess is that Sotomayor will be confirmed with relatively few Republican votes. The cry will go up once again about the GOP and Hispanics, that the party is further alienating itself from this crucial voting bloc, and so on. Sooner rather than later, all of this will be forgotten. The GOP will continue to have a problem with Hispanic voters, but this nomination will have no appreciable effect on it either way.

-Jay Cost