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Kavanaugh Column, News

What Do the Polls Know?

Does the public like Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the president’s nominee to the Supreme Court? And does it matter all that much?

A lot has been said about Brett Kavanaugh, the person: the fair-minded mentor to young attorneys, the devoted parish volunteer, the willing (and by all accounts, able) coach of his daughters’ basketball teams. What’s not to like, right? But despite all the White House and advocacy groups have done to burnish his public persona, the liberal news site Quartz calls Kavanaugh “an unpopular nominee” (while still predicting he will be confirmed). Given all we know about Kavanaugh, and throwing in his boyish looks and congenial demeanor, this charge seems uncharitable – a gratuitous slam, perhaps. But the polls appear to bear out the characterization. A little over a week after his nomination in early July, 538.com reviewed the data and concluded that Kavanaugh “is polling like Robert Bork and Harriet Miers,” two failed Republican nominations in recent history. Fox, Gallup and Pew Research had Kavanaugh up by just a few points. NBC echoed the messaging, declaring that Kavanaugh “heads into confirmation hearings with the weakest public support since Harriet Miers.”

Since the initial burst of polling in early July, however, there has been no significant polling done on the question, save

Quinnipiac University, which published a poll on July 25th (as reported in The Hill) that suggested voters were almost evenly divided over the nomination – 41 percent to 40 percent against him (note the poll had a margin of error  of 3.5%). Pollsters are apparently holding their fire – and their funding – until the public is focused intensely on the nominee again as his September 4th hearing begins. Early polls didn’t give the public much time to get to know Kavanaugh; one expects that up close and personal, the nominee will score points for congeniality as well as legal acumen, as predecessors like John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch did.

In the end, though, it is likely that national political winds have more to do with a nominee’s ultimate success than his or her likeability factors. Justice Clarence Thomas was confirmed by a vote of 52-48 in 1991, after one of the most controversial and personally acrimonious nomination hearings in history. (More on that in a later post.) Yet his personal ratings were high – many more voters, by a margin of 35%, favored his confirmation than opposed it. More recently, Samuel Alito was confirmed by only a slightly less narrow margin, 58-42, despite a margin favoring him by 20%. On the other side of the political aisle, Elena Kagan, nominated by President Obama, was confirmed by a significantly wider margin – 63-37 – even though her margin of approval was only 12%.

Personal likeability, like the quaint “Miss Congeniality” award in beauty pageants, can’t win the grand prize for contestants. But a negative demeanor certainly couldn’t help, particularly when fence-sitting senators need to hear from their constituents expressing their support for a nominee to push them over the line.