Many times, polling data needs to be put in context before it becomes
meaningful. For example, recent Rasmussen Research data shows that 24
percent of Americans expect a recession within the next six months.
Thirty-seven percent are confident that we won’t have a recession before
The only way to understand the significance of those numbers is to
put them in context. We have been asking the same question about
recession expectations for three years and these new numbers are the
most pessimistic ever. In January of this year, just 11 percent expected
a recession while 58 percent were confident that an economic downturn
was not in the offing. So, we can safely say that public confidence in
the economy has declined dramatically throughout the last year.
In the same way, much of the polling data released about the Supreme
Court’s role in Election 2000 needs to be put in context. Unfortunately,
virtually all of the recent editorializing on this subject has been
noticeably absent of context.
At Rasmussen Research, our most recent survey found that 52 percent
of voters agreed with the court decision to halt recounts in Florida.
Forty-one percent disagreed. Many other firms found similar results, and
all found a severe partisan split on the topic. Republicans tend to
agree with the court while Democrats disagree.
This polling data has led many pundits to wonder if the ruling will
harm the image of, and public respect for, the court.
However, if we add a little context, we see that there’s not much to
worry about. The public often gives mixed reviews to court decisions. In
July of this year, Rasmussen Research measured public reaction to a
number of recent Supreme Court decisions.
We found broad public support for a few decisions. Seventy percent
agreed with the court’s decision to uphold the Miranda decision; 78
percent agreed when the court upheld restrictions on anti-abortion
protesters; and 76 percent agreed with the court’s decision not to hear
an appeal on the Elian Gonzales case. Sixty-one percent also agreed with
the ruling that allowed the Boy Scouts to ban gay men from adult
However, other decisions were far less popular. For example, only 21
percent agreed with a Court decision in a Texas case that effectively
banned public prayers before high-school football games. Another
unpopular ruling involved a case where a local school district passed a
law saying that the teaching of evolution had to be accompanied by a
disclaimer mentioning the Bible’s version of creation. Just 33 percent
of American adults agreed when the court struck down this law while 53
In terms of partisan division, it’s hard to think of a more divisive
issue than abortion. In fact, the public division over abortion is
probably more intense than their division over President-elect Bush and
Vice President Gore. When the Supreme Court ruled that states don’t have
the right to ban “partial birth” abortion, 42 percent agreed and 44
So, when you put the public reaction to the court’s reaction in
context, it’s not unusual for Americans to be divided.
It is true that Americans tend to view the Supreme Court more
favorably than other branches of government. However, saying that is
damning the justices with faint praise. After all, what group in America
isn’t viewed more favorably than a collection of elected politicians?
Even though the court is viewed more favorably than Congress and the
executive branch, just 35 percent of American adults say that they
generally agree with most Supreme Court decisions. Another 30 percent
disagree, while 35 percent are not sure. That’s not bad, but it’s not
So, looking at this issue in context leads to one of two conclusions.
First, suppose that the worriers are correct and that the partisan
reaction to the ruling has harmed the court’s public legitimacy. It
that’s true, then the court’s legitimacy was probably damaged long
before by many other controversial rulings
The more likely conclusion is that the Election 2000 ruling will have
little impact on the court’s image. After all, the court has retained
its image despite issuing many opinions that were far more unpopular
with the public on issues that will have more of a lasting impact on the
When all is said and done, it is reasonable to conclude that when
people agree with a ruling, they praise the court for its wisdom. When
they disagree, they accuse the court of acting in a political or
partisan matter. It’s been that way for more than 200 years and it’s
hard to believe it will ever change.