(Trends Wide) — This week, the United States Supreme Court issued its most controversial decision in at least a decade. The ruling to overturn the landmark Roe vs. Wade that established the constitutional right to abortion may have important electoral consequences in this year’s midterm elections.
I covered the political impact in part in a previous column. But the court’s actions in this case may do more than affect this year’s election.
The Supreme Court’s own reputation is at stake, and the decision to ditch Roe v. Wade and upsetting the status quo comes at a very sensitive time for judges on a different court: that of public opinion.
And that’s where we’ll begin our look at the week’s news by numbers.
The Supreme Court is historically unpopular
The Supreme Court is not elected by the voters. Many people agree, however, that it is important for the court to maintain its legitimacy in the public eye. After all, the court relies on others to enforce its own rulings.
The Supreme Court’s legitimacy in the public mind was already at very low levels, and that was before the Roe overturn, something most Americans didn’t want.
Forty-one percent of voters approved of the job the Supreme Court was doing, according to a May Quinnipiac University poll. The majority (52%) disapproved. That was the highest disapproval rating recorded by Quinnipiac since he began asking about court approval in 2004.
The court’s position is a reversal from where things were two years ago when 52% of voters approved and 37% disapproved in the Quinnipiac polls.
Quinnipiac isn’t the only pollster to show a major downgrade in the court’s position. The percentage of Americans (25%) who are very or fairly confident on the court is at the lowest level Gallup has recorded since 1973.
The decline can be attributed primarily to Democrats. Today, 78% of Democrats disapprove of the job the court is doing, according to Quinnipiac. In 2020, only 43% did. Republican disapproval of the court has dropped from 38% two years ago to 28% now.
The reason the public and Democrats have turned against the Supreme Court is pretty clear: It’s seen as increasingly political, issuing unpopular decisions.
The aforementioned Quinnipiac poll showed that only 34% of voters believed the court is motivated primarily by law. The majority (62%) considered that the Supreme Court is mainly motivated by politics. Four years ago, the split was much more even, with 50% believing the court was primarily motivated by politics and 42% saying it was primarily motivated by law.
Once again, this trend is driven by the Democrats. Eighty-six percent of them told Quinnipiac that the court is primarily motivated by politics. That’s an increase from 60% in 2018. Republicans who said the same thing have hardly changed, from 46% in 2018 to 42% now.
It would be one thing if the court was seen as activist and making popular decisions. It is not. Both the Gallup and Quinnipiac polls were conducted after news leaked in May that the court was on the brink of toppling Roe.
Americans agreed with the 1973 Roe ruling. A May NBC News poll found that 63% of them did not want Roe overturned. In fact, every poll I know of has shown a clear majority of Americans in favor of Roe.
This has always been the case, since 1973, when 52% favored the decision in a poll by Louis Harris & Associates.
In fact, I’m not sure I can recall another controversial and consequential Supreme Court decision that was so unpopular.
Polls found a divided public when the court largely upheld the Affordable Care Act in 2012.
A majority of Americans (54%) favored the court stopping the manual recount in Florida that effectively ended the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, according to a CBS News poll at the time. .
A majority (55%) also approved of the court’s decision to desegregate public schools in Brown v. Board of Education of 1954.
One could argue that what the Supreme Court has done in striking down Roe is unprecedented from the point of view of public opinion.
However, what effect it will ultimately have has yet to be determined.
Record turnout at midterm looks possible
One potential impact of the latest Supreme Court ruling is that it could increase the likelihood that people will turn out to vote, in a cycle that is already seeing very high turnout.
In other words, we could be facing a second consecutive partial with a record participation.
As of Tuesday, primary turnout is up 13% in states that have voted so far compared to this point in 2018. (This does not include states where state turnout by party was not available for 2018 or 2022.)
The 2018 turnout, by itself, was higher than both 2014 and 2010. In fact, 2018 had the highest midterm turnout, as a percentage of the population eligible to vote, in more than a century.
The high turnout in the primary should not be surprising given what we saw in Virginia last year or in the polls so far this cycle. Virginia’s competitive 2021 gubernatorial election had the highest turnout for an off-year election in the Commonwealth since at least the mid-1990s.
Additionally, more voters are extremely excited about voting this year than they were in 2010 or 2014, according to Trends Wide/SSRS polling. And that extreme enthusiasm matches how voters felt right now in 2018.
Using a slightly different metric, the ABC News/Washington Post poll found that more voters say at this point in the midterm cycle that they will likely vote in November than at similar points in the 2010, 2014 or 2018 cycles.
I should point out that under all of these turnout metrics, Republicans have fared better than Democrats. Turnout is up 28% in Republican primaries from 2018, while down 2% in Democratic primaries. Republicans are more enthusiastic and more confident to participate than Democrats, according to polls.
Roe’s fall could alter that dynamic, at least a little. A majority of Democrats (55%) said in a May poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation that they would be more motivated to run in the midterms if Roe were revoked. Only 23% of Republicans said the same.
Put another way, Roe’s reversal means we may not only be seeing record Republican turnout in November. The Democrats may not be too far behind.