Monday, July 9, 2007

On Supreme Court Polling

Rasmussen Reports has a poll that asked respondents to rate the Supreme Court's performance as Excellent, Good, Fair, or Poor. The responses aren't that important for the purposes of this post (but, for the sake of curiosity, they are 9, 31, 35, and 23 respectively), as I'm more concerned with the question itself.

It puts too much faith in the American public, to be blunt about it. The fact of the matter is that most Americans can name zero Supreme Court Justices. For proof, see this. In December of 2005, 57% of respondents could name no sitting Justices. Here are the percentages of people who could name individual Justices in 2005:

O'Connor: 27%
Thomas: 21%
Roberts: 16%
Scalia: 13%
Ginsburg: 12%
Kennedy: 7%
Souter: 5%
Breyer: 3%
Stevens: 3%

Now, I don't want to be mistaken here; I do not expect people to be able to rattle off the Supreme Court Justices, and the ability to do so is not necessarily correlated to knowledge of Court decisions, which is more important. However, there is no denying that the public is ignorant of what goes on in the Supreme Court aside from those few cases that are controversial enough to warrant coverage on local news stations (in this last term, probably only the partial-birth abortion and affirmative action cases). And I'm even okay with that. I don't expect people to know or care about the kinds of obscure cases I discuss on this blog. However, I think these polls are absolutely ridiculous. They ask people questions about a topic about which they know next to nothing. It is like if someone asked me how the food in Paris is despite the fact that I've never been out of the States, and instead of saying "Oh, I don't know," I said "Oh, it's fabulous!"

Polling is a dubious business. It forces people to make up their minds about things they may not be sure about and tries to pass itself off as scientific. With that said, I should note that I still rely on polls when conducting election analysis. But, I think election polls are an entirely different beast than approval rating polls. But, they have their own problems, too.

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