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Supreme Court Nominations and Political Gain:

Some, such as the Washington Post today, have argued that a possible Gonzales nomination forces the President to choose between two goals--making the Court more conservative vs. "reaching out" to Hispanics on behalf of the Republican Party.

This seems to reflect the conventional wisdom. With respect to the latter, is there any evidence that Supreme Court nominations actually result in any political gain? For instance, is there any evidence that Reagan's appointment of O'Connor has actually made women more likely to vote Republican? Or that Clarence Thomas's appointment helped Bush with black voters? Or that Scalia's appointment as the first Italian-American increased the Italian-American vote for Republicans? (I'm actually serious about this one--some of the Nixon tapes reveal that Nixon considered appointing an Italian-American, Polish-American (for obvious reasons, Nixon's mention of "a Pole" sticks in my head), or similar "ethnic" American to the Court for these political reasons). Or that appointing the promised southerner Powell, had any positive impact for the Republicans in the South?

I've genuinely looked for empircial evidence on this, but have never been able to find any evidence. I would welcome any info that anyone can provide.

My instinct is that these political calculations are largely invalid when it comes to the Supreme Court. I just don't think the public's thinking about Supreme Court Justices run this way. 65% of Americans can't even name one Justice (although of those who can be named, O'Connor and Thomas are the two most-frequently named). I am skeptical that the political party that appoints a "first" sees any long-lasting political effect.

My perception is that there is not much political gain available here. So to return to the purported political "tradeoff" mentioned at the outset, the President's choice here seems to be between a tangible political loss with conservatives versus an ephemeral or even imaginary political gain with Hispanics. Not to mention that such an appointment would leave the President potentially vulnerable to losing political support by being attacked as "anti-woman" for replacing the "first woman Justice" with a man.

Of course, this is just the political tradeoff, leaving aside the more important issue of who is the best person available. Recall that when last confronted with a similar monumental choice, President Bush ignored the conventional wisdom when he chose Dick Cheney as his running mate. In that choice, I think that Bush probably was aware that even though the conventional wisdom was that there is all kinds of political calculations in picking a VP, it is my understanding that there is little empirical support for the proposition that the VP choice makes much of a political difference.

If anyone has any empirical evidence on the political effect of prior "firsts" please send it my way.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Gonzales and Political Gain With Hispanics:
  2. Supreme Court Nominations and Political Gain:
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Gonzales and Political Gain With Hispanics:

My intuition that there is little political gain to be had with Court appointments is reinforced by this story during the filibuster of the Miguel Estrada nomination, which reinforces my perception about the low salience of these sort of political questions regarding the courts:

Mr. Bendixen's poll found that 28 percent of Hispanics support the nomination, while 11 percent opposed it and 61 percent weren't aware of the nomination or didn't have an opinion.

He said that, based on listening to some of the poll interviews, it was clear many of those who supported Mr. Estrada were also confusing him with actor Erik Estrada, who was on the 1977-1983 television police drama "CHiPS" and is now a popular Spanish-language soap-opera star.

"Many of them think President Bush nominated Erik Estrada — I'd say a good third think that way," Mr. Bendixen said, adding that he heard one person say Mr. Estrada should be confirmed because he did such a good job playing a policeman on "CHiPS."

Republicans' own numbers confirm that most Hispanics aren't aware of the situation. A poll released last week of 800 Hispanics, taken by Alexandria-based Latino Opinions and not limited to registered voters, showed that just one-third were aware the Estrada nomination is pending and being blocked.

I suspect that the American public in general was even less aware of all this than those in the poll (of course, most Americans probably couldn't recall either Erik or Miguel). Of course, the Supreme Court is much higher-profile in the public's perception, but it does raise doubt in my mind about the likely political impact of such an appointment on Hispanic voters.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Gonzales and Political Gain With Hispanics:
  2. Supreme Court Nominations and Political Gain:
8 Comments