Voters Don’t Seem To Care About The Political Fight Over Vacant Supreme Court Seat

It may be the talk of Washington, but the political fight over Justice Scalia's vacant Supreme Court seat does not seem to be something voters care very much about.

Supreme Court Issues Multiple Rulings

It’s been more than two months since Justice Antonin Scalia died while on vacation in Texas, and a month since President Obama appointed Judge Merrick Garland as his choice to replace Scalia on the nation’s highest Court. In the time since his name was put up for nomination, Garland has met with many members of the Senate, including several Republican Senators who have vowed that there would be neither hearings nor a vote on a replacement to fill the vacancy left by Justice Scalia’s death. So far at least, there has been no action at all on Garland’s nomination and no indication there will be any any action before President Obama leaves office in nine months. Over this same period of time, there has been polling which indicates that most Americans would prefer if the Senate did hold hearings and a vote on the nomination, but there hasn’t been any indication of just how important this nomination is to voters and what impact it might have on the November elections, specifically on Senate elections that will decide who ends up controlling the upper chamber starting in January 2017.

If this tidbit from Associated Press reporter Julia Pace from Sunday’s edition of Inside Politics on CNN is any indication, the Garland nomination, and the “No Hearings, No Votes” position the GOP appear to be something that few people outside the beltway actually care about:

PACE:  I sat in on some focus groups this past week with both swing voters and Republican voters, and some of the questions they were asked were about the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland. And this was a real reality check for anyone in Washington who thinks that this issue is really animating voters across the country. I was so struck by how these voters seemed comply uninterested in the nomination fight.Among the swing voters, not one of them said that this was something that would really impact their vote in the fall. And even among the Republican voters who felt like this nomination should wait until the next president, almost none felt like this was an issue that was going to affect their vote either in the presidential race or in their Senate race.

KING:  Nice try Mr. President, I guess is the result.

Pace’s experience with these focus groups is anecdotal, of course, and may not necessarily be representative of the electorate as a whole, but it is consistent with voter behavior in past elections, and it suggests that neither the nomination nor the Senate’s refusal to act on it are going to have much of an impact on the election. It slso suggests that Senate Republicans are unlikely to be motivated to change their position on the nomination at any point before the General Election in November. Historically, the Supreme Court has never been a top voter concern in elections in the past, and generally not among those that voters have told pollsters would play a huge role in their decision on who to vote or in the General Election. Instead, as has almost always been the case, it’s the economy and so-called “pocketbook” issues that voters identify as being important to them. To the extent there are people who feel strongly enough about issues like this for it to impact their vote, they generally tend to fall into two categories. The people in the first group are hard-core Democrats who aren’t going to support Republican candidates for the Senate in any case, so their opinions are ones that GOP Senators tend to ignore. The second group consists of hard core Republicans who strongly support the “No Hearings, No Votes” position and strongly oppose anyone being confirmed to replace Justice Scalia before the next President takes office. This group has made clear that there would be consequences for Senators deviating from the ‘No Hearings, No Votes” position, including possible primary challenges from more conservative candidates and the threat that conservative voter could stay home in November. This is the electoral calculus that Senate Republicans are faced with, and it makes the reasons why they will likely stick together on the decision to take no action on the nomination at least until after the election entirely understandable. The fact that voters as a whole don’t particularly seem to care about these political machinations, it’s likely that they won’t pay much of a political price for their stubbornness.

H/T: Ed Morrissey

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Law and the Courts, Public Opinion Polls, Supreme Court, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Why does this surprise anybody?

  2. CB says:

    Well yeah, because Donald Trump probably called someone a homo or something and Clinton gave some speeches like 5 years ago. The voters are focused on the important things, Doug.

  3. CSK says:

    I think the whole concept is too abstract for a lot of people. I’m not being snotty; it’s just that some people don’t see this as impinging on their everyday lives. It does, of course, but the connection might not be clear and obvious to them.

  4. grumpy realist says:

    OT, but another case showing it’s not the negligence, but the cover-up that gets you.

    Pity it took so long for the truth to come out.

  5. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Well, we do have to consider that it has been a month since this flap started. The President’s office has not done a yeoman’s job of keeping this issue in the line of sight of the voters (not a complaint, just an observation) and the Senate GOP caucus decided (wisely in my mind) to not continue to trumpet the “no hearings, no vote, no way, no how” theme while they are busy not doing anything else either. With inaction on both sides, the fact that the pollees are “meh” about the issue may be the biggest nothing burger since the dispute about whose wife made the hottest first lady (or whatever that flap was about).

    As with other polls, it is difficult to tell at this point what will animate the voters in 6 months–particularly since we don’t know what issues the candidates will campaign on.

  6. James Pearce says:

    The fact that voters as a whole don’t particularly seem to care about these political machinations, it’s likely that they won’t pay much of a political price for their stubbornness.

    I encourage them to keep telling themselves that.

    There will be a political price, even if it’s not paid in lost congressional seats.

  7. Moosebreath says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    “Well, we do have to consider that it has been a month since this flap started.”

    And the news cycle has kind of been dominated by the Presidential primaries. In a few weeks, once both races are decided, there will likely be space to get this into the public eye.

  8. Raoul says:

    The swing voter is no the target on the nomination fight but the base voter; each side will use the issue to motivate its voters and the real time impact will depend on the demographics of the state. It is a tad early to give credence to polls but the issue seems to have galvanized democratic party voters in Iowa where the polls have a dead heat for the senate race where Grassley was expected to win easily.

  9. James Pearce says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:

    With inaction on both sides, the fact that the pollees are “meh” about the issue may be the biggest nothing burger

    Well consider this: Maybe Obama hasn’t been pushing the Garland nomination very hard because a 4-4 split (especially in the Roberts court) favors the liberal agenda. After all, there will be no decisions like Heller or Citizen’s United no matter how hard the right pushes for them until they can get a 5-4 majority.

    And Republicans, despite not backing down from “no hearings,” aren’t making a big deal out of it because they know they’ll probably be explaining to their voters why liberals control the White House and the Supreme Court and the only thing Republicans control is a Congress that hasn’t done anything useful in a decade. This after a Trump defeat? Yeah….I’d procrastinate too.

  10. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Moosebreath: Well, that’s kind of my thought on that, too. There’s enough time for this later, we don’t need to bring it up now.

  11. Scott F. says:

    First, by no means does this AP finding represent “voters as a whole.” By Pace’s own account, these focus groups were made up of swing voters and Republican voters.

    Secondly, neither of these groups would be where I’d expect much passion about the current SCOTUS situation anyway. Republican voters are getting what they want now and who gets to name the candidate for Scalia’s seat after the election is a dozen some steps down the road when the GOP nominee isn’t yet know.

    Swing voters won’t be paying attention until the case is made by the eventual nominees. Obama’s not pushing this very hard with the general public, because he’s confident the Dems win either way. He gets his nominee or Clinton gets hers.

    I suspect “voters as a whole” will poll quite differently when it comes closer to Election Day. This year will truly be different, because the stakes have not been quite like this in living memory.

    Scalia was a force and his impact on the court is easily explained. And now he’s dead. So this Presidential election the argument isn’t going to be about some hypothetical situation where the POTUS might fill a seat for some justice who might have one ideological bent or the other. The next President will either secure the balance of the court to the right or tip the balance to the left. The Court Hangs in the Balance is a made for TV story line and it will get played for all it’s worth.

  12. Davebo says:

    Pace’s experience with these focus groups is anecdotal, of course, and may not necessarily be representative of the electorate as a whole, but it is consistent with voter behavior in past elections,

    It’s also in conflict with almost all polling on the subject. Not to mention the fact that she admits her focus groups consisted of swing voters and republican voters. Seems there’s something missing here.

    The fact that voters as a whole don’t particularly seem to care about these political machinations, it’s likely that they won’t pay much of a political price for their stubbornness.

    So facts not in evidence followed by a prediction based on faulty and admittedly anecdotal data. Epic Win!

    Seriously Doug, if you can’t think more critically than this perhaps it’s best you turn off the cable news.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    @Davebo: Off topic, but since you reminded me of inside the beltway bubble horse race punditry, and I was looking for an excuse to sneak it in, I hope everyone caught Jim VandeHei’s public embarrassment earlier this week. Charles Pierce’s is one of the funnier of many take downs. Google “vandehei third party” for further amusement.

    Question. Did VandeHei do horse race reporting for years because he’s stupid, or did years of doing horse race reporting make VandeHei stupid?

  14. gVOR08 says:

    I wouldn’t expect the SCOTUS situation to be a big deal in the general election. Just one more brick in the argument that the Republican Party has gone off the deep end and become a threat to the Republic.

  15. Pch101 says:


    It’s also in conflict with almost all polling on the subject.

    Not really. I wouldn’t confuse “I think that there ought to be confirmation hearings” with “I am going to vote for Democrats and/or refuse to vote for Republicans if the GOP refuses to have confirmation hearings.”

    Pollsters aren’t even asking the second question, but we can guess what the ultimate answer will be in November and that answer doesn’t hurt the GOP.

    This is analogous to the shutdown. Americans didn’t like it and they blamed the Republicans for it. Yet that did not allow the Democrats to prevail in the 2014 midterms; in fact, we ended up with the opposite outcome. Very few voters are passionate about this.

  16. Gustopher says:

    I don’t think most people even know it is happening, let alone understand how unprecedented it is. The media has let the Republicans off the hook, and basically stopped reporting on this.

    Now, come October, when Democratic challengers put out ads saying “Senator X puts party ahead of country, refusing to do his job, unprecedented, blah, blah, blah, everything wrong with Washington”, we may see a lot of movement. Or not.


  17. stonetools says:

    I think a big reason is that conservatives have been very well educated by their media on the dangers of a liberal Supreme Court; liberals not so much.
    For example, even though liberals rail against Citizens United daily on the Internet, it doesn’t seem occur to most of them that the easiest way to get rid of Citizens United is not to start a POLITICAL REVOLUTION!!!, but simply to get a fifth liberal on the Supreme Court and to send the court the right test case.
    Conservatives OTOH, understand this very well , which is why this is a life and death struggle for them. They have made very sure that Republican Senators understand that their political future depends on the Senators doing everything they can to keep that fifth liberal Justice off the court. That’s why trying to shame Republican Senators with the #DoYourJobs hashtag isn’t working.The Republican Senators know that blocking the fifth liberal IS their job.
    The naivete of liberals is compounded by the Administrations’ feckless communication efforts. The Administration is just not good at whipping up public sentiment against its opponents. (Think of what a Trump Administration would have done with Democratic Senators blocking one of his appointments).I don’t see the Administration doing much better in the future, but maybe Obama will surprise me and campaign hard on the issue. We’ll see.

  18. Tyrell says:

    Like a lot of people, my attention has been on those numbers that I look at when I am out driving: those numbers that are hanging at the convenience stores – the price of gas per gallon, which keeps inching up a cent here, a cent there. Six weeks ago I paid exactly $1.52 a gallon and filled up for less than twenty dollars. Yesterday it was $2.05. For the last several months the American people have had extra money for clothes, food, car payments, movies, books, and lawn mowers. Is this the end of cheap gas ? Will we see $4/gallon gas by fall ? If so, it will certainly affect the election. It will affect food prices and other costs. We are not hearing our leaders address this. People are saying “$2.05 is still better than $4.” Yes, but will it stay around $2 ? This is controlled by the government/oil complex.
    “If you move a chair one inch a day, no one will notice”