Republican support of the Supreme Court has sunk to a historical low. Overall however, more Americans currently approve of the Court’s actions, 49 percent, than oppose, 46 percent. In a Gallup poll of 1009 adults nationwide taken from July 8th through July 12th, only 18 percent of Republicans approve, while an equally-staggering 76 percent of Democrats said they approve of the Court. In a sense, the numbers may not reflect the long-term sentiment for either party, but they do reflect the partisan reaction to last month’s historic rulings that legalized gay marriage and avoided major disruptions to Obamacare. The Republican approval rate is the lowest in Gallup’s 15-year history of tracking the Supreme Court sentiment, and it is 33 percentage points less than it was last summer. Democrats, on the other hand, raised their approval 29 points since last September, up from 47 percent. Independents rose slightly, to 49 percent approval, up from 46 percent in September as well.
Even though the poll reflects the recent decisions that are more in line with liberal beliefs, there may be more behind the results than simply what happened last month. The historical trend shows an astounding statistical pattern (see the accompanying graph). Both Democrats and Republicans tend to gravitate towards a 50 percent approval rate until a finite point in which a pattern similar to an explosion occurs, where the approval rates hit extreme levels and then coalesce back to the middle until the next “explosion.” The first such polarity happened in the poll’s infancy following the Bush vs. Gore decision, with 80 percent of Republicans approving and 42 percent of Democrats. Although a gradual divide occurred between 2005 and 2006, as Justices Roberts and Alito replaced Justices Rehnquist and O’Conner causing an ideological shift the right, another gradual shift back to the middle was harshly disrupted by the change in White House leadership in 2009. Another example of the trend occurred after 2012’sSebelius decision, which was the first Obamacare judicial test, with both parties’ numbers returning to the midpoint until last week’s poll. Although 2010’s Citizen’s United vs. FEC decision, which essentially blew the doors off of campaign finance limits, was controversial, it was met with bipartisan disdain, leading to an overall drop in Supreme Court approval not dependent on party affiliation.
More than anything, Gallup’s numbers conclude, at least since 2000, that support of the Court is based much more on temporary circumstances as opposed to long-term ideological leanings of the Court or the public. Although the Court has become increasingly politicized in punditry circles since Bush vs. Gore, and some of the dialogue within the Court’s halls has also become more partisan, the court remains fairly balanced ideologically. Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Breyer are commonly referred to as the “Liberal four,” while Justices Thomas, Alito, and Scalia are thought to be staunchly Conservative. Although Chief Justice John Roberts was appointed by President George W. Bush, explicitly according to the president, for his “strict constructionist” interpretation of the Constitution, Roberts has sided with the current president in both Obamacare rulings, including casting the deciding vote in 2012. Justice Anthony Kennedy was appointed by Reagan, and has consistently become the swing vote on many cases. Kennedy cast the deciding vote for the recent gay marriage case in the 5-4 decision that included Robert’s dissent. Although a longer-term analysis may provide differing results, it would appear that the public, regardless of party, will eventually return to offering lukewarm support of the Court until the next explosive ruling or major change in Washington.
Gallup.com – Jeffrey M. Jones
Politico – Nick Gass
The Hill (blog) – Ben Kamisar