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Do Popular Presidents = Popular Supreme Court Nominees?

- August 6, 2010

Glenn Greenwald:

bq. In other words, the supposedly safe, moderate-appearing, blank slate nominee (Kagan) received fewer confirmation votes, and was less politically popular, than the supposedly risky, clearly liberal nominee with a long record of judicial opining and controversial statements (Sotomayor). Aren’t there important lessons in those facts? Doesn’t that rather clearly contradict the endless excuse-making from the Democratic establishment that muddled moderation is politically necessary? If you’re going to attract a tiny handful of GOP votes no matter what, why not nominate someone who will enliven the public, inspire your base, and provide an opportunity to advocate and defend a progressive judicial philosophy?

Jon Bernstein:

bq. I would say: no, there are no important lessons in those facts. Kagan almost certainly did worse than Sotomayor not because of anything having to do with them as Court candidates, but because Barack Obama was far more popular in spring 2009 than in spring 2010. Greenwald supplies a nice Gallup chart showing support for various nominees over the years, and a quick glance reveals that support for nominees appears to be highly correlated with presidential approval levels (I don’t know of any research on that point…)

Here is a graph comparing opinion of presidents and their Court nominees, using the Gallup data on nominees that Greenwald presents and Gallup data on presidential approval from the week or two immediately before the outcome for each nominee:

The relationship that Bernstein hypothesizes is present, although 8 observations make it difficult to draw firm conclusions. (The slope on the regression line is 0.31 with standard error of 0.44; the r-squared is 0.08.) There is a lot of variation due to circumstances specific to each nominee. Consider Miers and Bork, for example.

With more data, we could probably draw a firmer conclusion about any correlation. Like Bernstein, I would appreciate references to relevant research.