Opinions on the Supreme Court before the Texas case

December 11, 2020, 10:06 PM UTC

One way or another, the U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to hear and rule on a lawsuit filed by the State of Texas that seeks to void the presidential election results in four swing states. Can action by the Supreme Court help resolve the sharply conflicting opinions among Americans about the election outcome? The odds are long. Although the Supreme Court maintains a net positive rating, feelings about President Donald Trump, President-Elect Joe Biden and the election are far more intense.

On the latest Economist/YouGov poll, more Americans approve (45%) than disapprove (29%) of the Supreme Court, with roughly one in four unsure (26%). Not surprisingly, views on the Court differ among partisans: Approval is currently higher among Republicans (69%) and Trump voters (76%) than among Democrats (35%) and Biden voters (35%).

The events of 2020 widened this partisan divide. In June and July, about half of both Democrats and Republicans approved of the Court in Economist/YouGov polling. Republican approval started to rise and Democratic approval to fall, immediately after the party conventions in August. The divide grew wider still amidst the nomination and confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September and October. 

Perhaps more striking, and more relevant to the current election controversy, is that very few Americans have strong feelings about the performance of the Supreme Court. On the latest survey, just one in five either strongly approves (11%) or strongly disapproves (9%). The vast majority are somewhere in the middle, saying they either somewhat approve (34%), somewhat disapprove (20%) or are unsure (26%). 

Even among partisans, relatively few have strong opinions regarding the job the Court is doing. Just 21% of Trump voters strongly approve of the Court, and just 16% of Biden voters strongly disapprove. 

Compare those numbers to views of political figures expressed in the same survey: Nearly all Trump voters (91%) strongly approve of the way he is handling his job as president and 51% strongly disapprove of Biden’s handling of the transition. Four out of five Biden voters (78%) strongly approve of his handling of the transition and nearly all (91%) strongly disapprove of Trump’s performance as president. 

Part of the difference, of course, is that the Supreme Court consists of nine justices appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents, so opinions on the Court as a whole are necessarily a bit muddled. 

The uncertainty extends to perceptions of the Court’s ideology. More Americans now see the court as conservative (37%) rather than liberal (7%), but better than half are either unsure (26%) or see it as moderate (30%). And more to the point, just a small handful consider the Court very conservative (11%) or very liberal (1%). 

An interesting wrinkle: Most Biden supporters are convinced that the Supreme Court is conservative (72%) while, despite the Coney Barrett confirmation, Trump voters are not similarly persuaded. More Trump voters describe the Court as moderate (55%) than conservative (21%). 

It may be tempting, given the net positive rating of the Supreme Court, especially among Trump voters, to assume that a rejection of the Texas lawsuit might resolve concerns about voter fraud and the fairness of the election among Trump’s supporters. However, regardless of the ruling, given the relative intensity of feeling on Trump, Biden and the election outcome, and the relative lack of strong opinion on the Supreme Court and its ideology, the more likely result may be a shift in attitudes about the Court itself.

See the toplines and crosstabs from this Economist/YouGov Poll 

Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US Adults interviewed online between December 6 - 8, 2020. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 3.3% for the overall sample.    

Image: Getty