June 15, 2005

Supreme Court’s Image Declines as Nomination Battle Looms

Court Critics Now on Both Left and Right

Summary of Findings

With an aging Supreme Court possibly facing major changes, the court’s public image has eroded significantly. Currently, 57% of Americans have a favorable opinion of the Supreme Court, with 30% expressing an unfavorable view. In the past, favorable views of the court typically surpassed 70%; even in January 2001, shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling deciding the contentious presidential election, 68% expressed a positive opinion of the court.

Two very different factors are contributing to the court’s lower standing with the public. Democrats turned more negative toward the Supreme Court in the wake of its controversial decision in Bush v. Gore. Positive opinions of the court among Democrats fell from 78% in May 1997 to 61% in January 2001. Democratic support for the court has continued to ebb, and now stands at 51%.

But much of the recent decline in positive views of the court has come among conservative Republicans. Favorable opinions of the Supreme Court among both conservative Republicans and white evangelical Protestants have declined by about 20 points since January 2001. An analysis of the poll finds that Republicans who want the court to take a tougher stand against abortion rights are more dissatisfied with the court than Republicans who do not.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted June 8-12 among 1,464 Americans, finds that the struggle over the court’s future is beginning to intensify. Overall, 47% of the public says the selection of the next Supreme Court justice is very important to them personally, up from 38% in March. But at this point, the issue is mainly of interest to the extreme wings of each political party. Fully six-in-ten conservative Republicans (61%), and the same number of liberal Democrats, attach great importance to the selection of the next nominee. That compares with just four-in-ten conservative and moderate Democrats, and about the same number of moderate and liberal Republicans (38%).

On what is likely to be a pivotal issue in a Supreme Court nomination battle ­ abortion rights ­ the public continues to strongly oppose the complete overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision. By 63%-30%, the public rejects the idea of completely overturning the 1973 decision establishing a woman’s right to abortion. That margin has remained stable for more than a decade.

In many ways, the political divide over that landmark court decision reflects the battle lines over the court’s future. Solid majorities in most demographic groups oppose completely overturning the Roe v. Wade decision, but opposition is greatest among liberal Democrats (82%) and seculars (82%).

Conservative Republicans are by far the most supportive of overturning the Roe v. Wade decision (62%). This represents a deep division within the Republican base, as Republicans who describe themselves as moderate or liberal favor maintaining Roe v. Wade by a 71% to 25% margin. The only other major group in which a majority favors completely overturning Roe v. Wade is white evangelical Protestants (52%).

Dissatisfaction with the Supreme Court among Republicans is closely tied to views about Roe v. Wade. The roughly half of Republicans who would like to see the abortion decision overturned are twice as likely as their counterparts who support the status quo to give the Court an unfavorable rating (33% vs. 16%).

Attitudes toward Roe v. Wade also are a major factor in Republican views of how President Bush should approach a possible court vacancy. Overall, a 35% plurality wants President Bush to select a nominee who will keep the court as it is now; 29% favor a nominee who will move the court in a more conservative direction; and 28% favor a nominee who will make the court more liberal.

Fully three-quarters of Republican opponents of the Roe decision (76%) want Bush to appoint a justice who will make the court more conservative, compared with just 33% of Republican supporters of Roe. A plurality of Republican supporters of the Roe precedent (43%) believe Bush should appoint a justice who keeps the court about the same as it is now.

There also is a large gap in the intensity of opinions about the court’s future between Republicans who oppose Roe and those who support it. Fully 62% of Roe opponents within the party say the decision of how to fill an upcoming vacancy on the Court is very important to them personally; just 43% of those who support Roe agree.

Congress, GOP Down

The new Pew survey finds further evidence of public dissatisfaction with Congress. About half of Americans (49%) express a favorable opinion of Congress, a decline from 56% a year ago and the lowest mark since the 1999 impeachment trial of former President Bill Clinton (48% in January 1999).

Views of Congress remain partisan, but the decline in congressional favorability has come among members of both parties. The shift has been greatest among those at either end of the political spectrum. Just three-in-ten liberal Democrats (31%) have a positive view of Congress, down from 53% last June. Conservative Republicans also are less happy with Congress; 58% have a favorable opinion of Congress, compared with 70% a year ago.

Positive opinions of the Republican Party have slipped since the end of last year. Currently, 48% have a favorable opinion of the GOP, with 44% unfavorable. In December 2004, positive opinions of the Republican Party outnumbered negative ones by 52%-42%. Over the same period, ratings for the Democratic Party have been stable (53% then/52% now). In the new poll, fewer than half of those ages 65 and older (46%) express a positive opinion of the Republican Party, down from 57% last December.

Rating the Parties Ideologically

As in the past, most Americans see themselves close to the center of the ideological spectrum. And they view the two parties as being about equally distant from their own position. However, the new poll finds more political independents see the Republican Party as too conservative than see Democratic Party as too liberal.

On an ideological scale of 1-6 (where 1 is the most conservative and 6 is the most liberal), the midpoint is 3.5 and the public’s self-rating, on average, is 3.4. The Republican Party, on average, receives a rating of 2.6; the average rating for the Democratic Party is the same distance in the liberal direction (4.2).

On average, Republicans rate the Democratic Party as more liberal than Democrats rate their own party (4.7 vs. 4.0). By contrast, Democrats place the GOP at about the same place on the spectrum as Republicans place their party (2.4 vs. 2.6).

Independents view the Republican Party as slightly further away from the ideological midpoint than the Democratic Party (2.8 for Republican Party; 4.0 for Democratic Party).

This can also be seen by comparing how independents rate themselves versus how they rate the two parties. Roughly half of independents (51%) rate the Republican Party as more conservative than themselves; fewer independents (36%) rate the Democratic Party as more liberal than themselves.

Significantly, more Republicans are in tune ideologically with the GOP than Democrats are with their party. A plurality of Republicans (43%) rate their party the same as they rate themselves. By contrast, only about a third of Democrats (34%) give the Democratic Party the same rating they give themselves.

Ideology and Issues

The public’s view of the parties’ ideological stances on social issues, like homosexuality and abortion, is almost evenly split. About as many say the Republican Party is too conservative on these issues (38%) as believe the Democratic Party is too liberal (35%).

There is a comparable divide in opinions of the parties’ ideological positions on economic issues. However, there are bigger differences in the public’s perceptions of where the parties stand on foreign policy and national security issues. Nearly half (46%) say the Democratic Party is ‘not tough enough’ on these issues. Views of the Republican Party’s positions on national security are more divided; 31% believe the GOP is not tough enough on foreign policy, while 22% say it is too tough.

Pluralities of independents rate the GOP as being too conservative on social issues (41%) and economic issues (38%). By contrast, pluralities of independents say the Democratic Party is about right on both sets of issues.

Like the general public, independents are divided in their assessment of the Republican Party’s positions on foreign policy; a third say their positions are about right, with somewhat smaller percentages saying they are not tough enough (30%) or too tough (26%). But a plurality of independents (44%) believe the Democratic Party is not tough enough on foreign policy.