Friday, August 3, 2007

The Supreme Court and the Debates: New Pew Survey Report Out

I'm a big fan of most of Pew's projects, but particularly the Research Center for the People and the Press. The survey reports produced by Pew tend to be some of the most detailed and informative you will find anywhere. When I was writing the sixth edition of my textbook on political parties and elections, I frequently turned to Pew for data to illustrate points I was making in the book. (As a political scientist who is always excited to get his hands on some data, I am also particularly fond of the fact that Pew tends to put its raw data online within 6 months or so of completing the survey (typically, lag times for getting survey data run much longer)).

Well, Pew released a report on a new national survey this week and there are some very interesting findings in the report. One of the things that Pew asked about were the debates, and specifically the CNN/YouTube debate held recently. They asked a general question about whether respondents prefer debates where journalists ask questions or where "regular people" do the asking. The question, of course, assumes that journalists are not "regular people." I am sure we can all agree with that assumption, right? Ok, I'm just joking! Both my parents are journalists...and they are, more or less, "regular people." In any event, by a margin of 68% to 17%, the American public prefers debates where journalists are not the ones asking the questions. I've never seen this specific question asked before, so it was pretty interesting to see how overwhelmingly popular the town hall/YouTube format is with the public. Hopefully we'll see more such debates in the future, as we should be tailoring the format to appeal to the citizens we are trying to engage in the process.

While the findings on the presidential debates were interesting, another part of the survey that stood out the most for me was what Pew found when it asked citizens about the Supreme Court. The percentage of the public with favorable views of the Supreme Court is down from previous surveys. Pew highlights the difference between this survey, in which 57% viewed the Court favorably, and a January poll where the Court's favorability rating was 71%. That is a substantial drop, but there may be something about asking the question in January that leads to more favorable responses (post-holiday warmth or, more likely, the federal government is coming off an extended holiday, so it hasn't done anything to upset people in a few weeks). So, just to be conservative, let's compare favorability ratings now to those given at this time last year. In fact, there appears to be a significant drop in favorability ratings for the court even if you compare ratings from last July. At that time, 63% viewed the Court favorably. Interestingly, this drop is driven in equal amounts by Democrats AND independents--favorability ratings among each of those groups dropped by 8% during the past year.

Of course, it is also important to note that there are a lot of people out there who are fairly uninformed about the court's recent activity, and some of them even admit it. When asked what their opinion was of the court's recent decisions, one in five respondents admitted that they haven't heard enough about them and another 16% said they didn't know what they their opinion was. When capturing attitudes about the Supreme Court, it is good to keep in mind that a lot of these opinions are formulated based on what small bits of Supreme Court news coverage citizens are actually exposed to.

These are just the highlights from the report. There are tons of interesting things to look at in toplines, and I'm hoping to post more about those this weekend.

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