TO: Interested Parties
FROM: Supreme Court Voter, Hart Research Associates
DATE: July 1, 2020
RE: The Supreme Court Can Be A Mobilizing Issue for Progressives
Conservatives have long had the upper hand over progressives when it comes to engaging around the federal courts. Donald Trump famously leveraged this situation in 2016 by releasing a shortlist of Supreme Court nominees to coalesce his base; exit polls showed he went on to win voters who said they considered the Supreme Court a top concern by 15 points.
Over the last three years, however, the sustained attention on controversial Trump nominees to the bench, lingering opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation in 2018, and a range of high-profile Supreme Court rulings have begun to raise the salience of the federal courts in the minds of progressives and left-leaning independents. It has also eroded these Americans’ confidence in the federal judiciary’s ability to perform its role as an independent institution.
On behalf of the Supreme Court Voter project, Hart Research Associates conducted focus groups and an online poll of 800 progressives and moderates in key states. Our research suggests that the current moment provides progressives with a strong opportunity to match and even eclipse conservatives’ long-term success when it comes to mobilizing their side around judges and the courts. Concerns are rising among progressives on this issue to an extent unseen in recent years. Further messaging about the politicization of the courts under Trump has the potential to raise the intensity levels on this issue substantially.
Trump’s takeover of the Supreme Court can unite and mobilize progressives and Independents.
An overwhelming majority of the people we polled are concerned about Donald Trump’s long-term impact on the Supreme Court. More than 80% of respondents said it is a “big concern” that “if Donald Trump gets to appoint two more justices, it will cement a seven-to-two right-wing majority on the Supreme Court for years to come.” Respondents correctly understand that Trump’s impact on the Court will last long beyond his presidency; 83% say it is a “big concern” that “any new Trump justice will serve for decades after he leaves office.”
While Trump’s takeover of the courts may be among his biggest accomplishments, our research shows the impact of Trump’s nominees has been to reduce confidence in the independence of the judicial branch. Across survey questions, respondents raised concern that the Court is now too political and too close to Trump. As one focus group participant volunteered, “I never felt like the Supreme Court was political until the last decade. Mitch McConnell and Trump have politicized the court system from local to Supreme.”
Progressives start out hostile to the bloc of five Republican-appointed justices — and get more so when they learn more.
Respondents start out with a highly unfavorable view of the five Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices as a group — starting out with a 60% unfavorable rating compared to just an 11% favorable rating. A majority of respondents describe themselves as having no or very little confidence that that bloc is fair and unbiased, puts politics aside and makes decisions based on the law, or protects ordinary people.
Our research also shows the Court is vulnerable to Americans learning more about how it operates. Eighty-five percent of respondents said it was a “big concern” that Supreme Court justices are not bound by a code of ethics. Eighty-one percent said the same about learning that the five Republican justices have voted as a partisan bloc 73 times to advance corporate and Republican donor interests, and 79% thought it was a big concern that the Court has “become increasingly biased in favor of big business [since 2005], ruling for the Chamber of Commerce’s position 70% of the time.” After respondents learn more about the Court and the Republican-appointed justices, the Republican-appointed justices’ unfavorable rating jumps to 71%, and the number of respondents who have an unfavorable view of the Court as a whole nearly doubles.
The intensity of distrust for Brett Kavanaugh has not diminished nearly two years after his nomination.
Brett Kavanaugh is a key character in understanding why progressives so distrust the Republican majority on the Court. More than 80% of respondents said it was a big concern that Kavnauagh was given a lifetime appointment despite credible allegations of sexual misconduct and evidence of his political bias. His net approval rating was negative 39 points, making him by far the most disliked justice among these respondents. As one focus group participant volunteered when asked the first thing that comes to mind about the Supreme Court, “Brett Kavanaugh is a despicable human being and should not have any power whatsoever over anyone.”
The ACA case will be a liability for the Court’s reputation this entire year.
The Trump-supported lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act will give progressives a way to hammer home the importance of fighting back against Trump’s takeover of the Court. Respondents ranked access to health care as the most important issue to them of various issues that could come before the Court, and only 20% of respondents had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the Republican-appointed justices to protect access to affordable health care. Meanwhile, 53% had very little or no confidence at all.