To Confirm or Not to Confirm: Polling on Court Nominees

In the latest CBS News Poll, conducted just before Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Senate confirmation hearings began, a quarter of Americans said they had a favorable opinion of the Supreme Court nominee and 15 percent were unfavorable -- but most Americans had yet to form an opinion.

That's not unusual; the confirmation hearings are often the first opportunity Americans have to learn about a nominee's judicial approach and positions on some issues.

(CBS)
The CBS poll also asked whether Americans thought the Senate ought to confirm Sotomayor. Thirty percent said yes and just 14 percent said no, but again many Americans – 52 percent -- couldn't say.

Comparing that data to the public's views of previous nominees shows that opinions are actually more positive and better-formed for Sotomayor.

At 30 percent, the percentage that thinks the Senate should confirm Sotomayor is higher than it was for previous nominees as their hearings began. Just 14 percent thought the Senate should confirm two ultimately unsuccessful nominees -- Harriet Miers, who withdrew from consideration before hearings were held, and Robert Bork. About a quarter thought the Senate should confirm Clarence Thomas and John Roberts.

And while half of all Americans didn't have an opinion as to whether Sotomayor should be confirmed, that's actually a lower number than this poll has found in the past for other nominees. As many as seven in ten Americans couldn't say whether Samuel Alito or Harriet Miers should be confirmed, and nearly as many had no opinion about John Roberts or Robert Bork.

SHOULD SENATE CONFIRM NOMINEE?
Now
Sotomayor
1/2006
Alito
10/2005
Miers
9/2005
Roberts
9/1991
Thomas
9/1987
Bork
Yes 30% 17% 14% 26% 24% 14%
No 14% 9% 13% 8% 11% 13%
Can't say 52% 70% 70% 63% 59% 66%


Partisan polarization over Supreme Court nominees is nothing new, but the gap between Democrats' and Republicans' views on confirming Sotomayor is larger than for other recent nominees. Fifty-two percent of Democrats think she should be confirmed, but just 12 percent of Republicans agree.

SENATE SHOULD CONFIRM SOTOMAYOR? (CBS News Poll, July 2009)
Republicans 12%
Democrats 52%
Independents 21%


SENATE SHOULD CONFIRM SAMUEL ALITO (CBS News Poll, January 2006)
Republicans 36%
Democrats 6%
Independents 14%


SENATE SHOULD CONFIRM JOHN ROBERTS (CBS News Poll, September 2005)
Republicans 46%
Democrats 13%
Independents 21%


In the past, public support for a nominee's confirmation has usually risen once the Senate hearings end and the public has had a chance to learn more about him or her.

In a CBS News/New York Times Poll conducted just after Samuel Alito's hearings ended, 33 percent thought the Senate should confirm him, up from 17 percent before the hearings began.

Before his widely-watched hearings began, 24 percent felt Clarence Thomas should be confirmed -- that rose to fully 57 percent in a CBS News Poll conducted just after his hearings ended.

Support for the confirmation of Robert Bork also rose, from 14 percent before his hearings to 21 percent afterward, but the percentage that thought Bork should not be confirmed increased too, from 13 percent to 27 percent after the hearings.

SENATE SHOULD CONFIRM…
Before hearings After hearings
Alito (1/2006) 17% 33%
Thomas (10/1991) 24% 57%
Bork (9/1987) 14% 21%


Some politicians and observers have said that Sotomayor will most likely be confirmed; this poll shows that is something more Americans would like to see happen than not.



Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys. Poll Positions is weekly Hotsheet feature on polling trends from the CBS News Survey and Polling Unit. Click here for more posts from the series.
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    Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys.

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