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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Jonathan Bernstein: Ketanji Brown Jackson? Popular. Republican senators? Not so much

By Jonathan Bernstein Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

The results are in, and it looks as though the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has been about as big a public opinion success as anything can be. No, it isn’t likely to matter in November, let alone in November 2024. But for whatever it’s worth, Jackson polls well – and the Republican attacks on her poll badly.

Oh, and meanwhile, she has the votes to be confirmed.

Many pundits correctly predicted her confirmation. But many also said that President Joe Biden had hurt his own cause by explicitly pledging to nominate a Black woman for the Supreme Court, and that the Republican attacks during her confirmation hearings were at least potentially damaging. Indeed, some activists said that Democrats on the Judiciary Committee did too little to defend the nominee.

Now there are polls. One from Marquette Law School reports that 66% of respondents would vote to confirm Jackson, against 34% who would oppose. The margin in a Quinnipiac University poll is slightly less favorable, with 51% to 30% in favor of confirmation. Meanwhile, those Republican attacks? Here’s Quinnipiac:

“Americans disapprove 52-27 percent of the way Republican Senators are handling the confirmation process of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, while 21 percent did not offer an opinion.

“On the other hand, Americans approve 42-34 percent of the way Democratic Senators are handling the confirmation process of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, while 23 percent did not offer an opinion.”

Both of these surveys, mind you, are high quality polls. Quinnipiac has been one of the worst of the major polls for Biden’s approval, suggesting it tilts a bit Republican (although the big difference here appears to be that Marquette’s question forces respondents to answer one way or the other).

It’s also worth noting that a bit of a tilt is not of itself a sign of poor quality. Every pollster has a different method of sampling the public and adjusting for various hard-to-handle issues. Generally the best way to interpret these differences is to look to polling averages, not single polls, and to look at the general direction of pubic opinion, not the specific numbers in any particular poll. A pre-hearings Gallup poll showed strong support for Jackson’s confirmation, with 58% in favor and 30% opposed, so it’s hard to say that the hearings changed much of anything – other than modestly helping Democratic senators and hurting Republican ones.

Republican senators who see themselves as possible presidential candidates, however, are likely far more interested in impressing the 27% who approved of their handling of the confirmation hearings than they are worried about alienating the 52% who disapproved. It’s that first group which will be voting in Republican primaries in less than two years, and some of those voters will remember the senators they saw as tough on a liberal judge. It’s also possible that some of those senators are running for vice president and trying to impress the audience of one watching Fox News at Mar-a-Lago.

What else motivated Republicans who claimed they would be respectful to Jackson and then smeared her as (at least) pedophile-friendly on extremely flimsy evidence? Vox’s Ian Millhiser suggests that they were aware that such attacks could backfire, but they just couldn’t help themselves. Plausible! It’s also plausible that some Republican senators are so deep in the conservative echo chamber that they simply didn’t see how their attacks could be seen as personal.

My favorite theory, however, is that this was all jockeying for the presidential nomination, and these Republicans weren’t concerned with the effect on the general public. To be clear, this is a dynamic that also exists on the Democratic side. Just look at Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, who is currently trying to appeal to his state’s swing voters while having to answer for a bunch of policy positions he took in 2020 to appeal to Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Still, many Republicans seemed to sincerely believe that they had damaged Jackson. Again, it’s not apt to matter for future elections, but for the record? They didn’t.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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