New S.C. Poll: Colbert Hot, Court-Bashing Not
Justice at Stake Survey Shows Little Traction for Gingrich’s Heated Anti-Judge Rhetoric
WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 18—In a new statewide poll of South Carolina Republicans, comedian Stephen Colbert is showing surprising voter appeal. But angry attacks against federal courts—an issue trumpeted by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at the height of his popularity last month—are running aground, the survey found.
The poll, commissioned by the nonpartisan Justice at Stake Campaign, showed 34 percent leaning toward voting for Mitt Romney, with 23 leaning toward Gingrich, followed by Rick Santorum (15 percent), Ron Paul (11) and Rick Perry (7). Surprisingly, 7 percent of Republican-leaning voters said they definitely would vote for Colbert if his name were on the ballot and another 13 percent said they would consider casting such a vote. That potentially would push Colbert as high as third place in one of the nation’s most conservative states.
By contrast, only 2 percent of South Carolina Republican voters identified “courts and judges” as their top interest. The courts issue was dwarfed by the economy, jobs, taxes, and the budget, which collectively were identified by 80 percent of the public as the most important voter concerns.
Moreover, only a modest plurality of state GOP voters supports Gingrich’s most controversial plan: 44 percent favored his idea of dispatching dispatch federal marshals to courthouses to compel federal judges to testify before Congress about their decisions, while 37 percent were opposed.
“Court-bashing remains on the radical fringe of American politics. For candidates seeking high office, it looks increasingly like a political nonstarter,” said Bert Brandenburg, executive director Justice at Stake. “For all the frightening rhetoric we’ve heard in recent months, Americans have their eyes set on other issues. There is little public appetite in either party for a full-fledged assault on the rule of law.”
The survey is the second commissioned by Justice at Stake in the last month to assess voter attitudes toward federal courts, which Gingrich and other GOP candidates have made a campaign target. In December, a national poll by Justice at Stake showed that voters largely oppose the positions of six current and former GOP candidates regarding the courts—including several that would allow Congress to ignore, bypass or even shut down courts whose decisions they disagree with. Fully 70 percent said courts should be accountable to the law and the Constitution, while only 19 percent said courts should be accountable to Congress.
Fifty-one percent of voters nationally opposed Gingrich’s idea of using marshals to detain judges (38 percent were in favor), while large majorities opposed allowing Congress and the President to ignore court rulings, or to shut down courts based on disagreements over court decisions.
According to an October 2011 candidate analysis by Justice at Stake, the proposals threaten the ability of courts to serve as a guardian of constitutional liberties.
As in South Carolina, a recent national Gallup poll confirmed that for the vast majority of voters, court bashing is a back burner issue. According to Gallup, only 2 percent of the general public identified “courts and judges” as their most important issue, far behind economic topics.
In the South Carolina poll, Republican voters ranked issues in the following order: “taxes and the economy” (30 percent); “jobs and unemployment” (30 percent); “federal debt/budget deficit” (20 percent); “moral and family values” (6 percent); “health care” (4 percent); “courts and judges” (2 percent); “immigration” (1 percent); and “education” (1 percent). Only 6 percent ranked courts and judges as one of their two most important issues, placing that issue sixth among eight in voter importance.
South Carolina Republicans appear to be more sympathetic to anti-court attacks than are voters nationally, with 42 percent saying they would be more likely to vote for candidates seeking to erode the authority of federal courts, while 24 percent said they would be less likely to vote for such candidates, and 27 percent saying it made no difference.
But, overall, the distant second-tier status of court issues suggests that Gingrich miscalculated badly in emphasizing anti-court attacks after he soared to front-runner status in early December in Iowa. While blasting judges as “radically anti-American” and “grotesquely dictatorial,” Gingrich appealed to a limited minority of the electorate, Brandenburg said. At the same time, he aroused angry blowback from many leading conservatives, including columnist George Will, Senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.), and former Attorneys General Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzales.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator who tied for first in Iowa with Romney, fared little better when he told a New Hampshire town hall meeting that he supported shutting down federal appellate courts that he disagreed with. Santorum trailed badly in New Hampshire and among likely Republican voters in South Carolina. Since New Hampshire, anti-court attacks have receded as a central issue—further confirmation that voters are placing far greater weight on other topics.
“Deep concerns remain about court-bashing candidates, but Campaign 2012 has affirmed that voters believe in courts that are fair and free of politics,” Brandenburg said. “Candidates hoping to profit by loud, angry anti-court rhetoric haven’t found success. The public isn’t buying what they’re selling, and that’s good news for our system of democracy.”
Huntsman dropped out of the race after the first day of the poll, which was conducted Jan. 15-17. Three percent of voters said they leaned toward voting for the former Utah governor. In a question put to all registered South Carolina voters, President Obama trailed Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, 46 to 40. Obama narrowly led Gingrich and Santorum among all state voters.
The automatic telephone poll was conducted of 1,135 registered South Carolina voters by 20/20 Insight, with an overall margin of error of 2.9 percent. Among the 512 likely Republican primary voters participating, the margin of error was placed at 4.3 percent.
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The Justice at Stake Campaign is a nonpartisan national partnership working to keep our courts fair, impartial and free from special-interest and partisan agendas. In states across America, Campaign partners work to protect our courts through public education, grass-roots organizing and reform. The Campaign provides strategic coordination and brings organizational, communications and research resources to the work of its partners and allies at the national, state and local levels. The positions of Justice at Stake partners are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of other partners or board members. Justice at Stake does not endorse or oppose candidates for election, but does analyze candidates’ positions as they relate to fair, impartial courts. For information, visit www.justiceatstake.org or read our blog www.gavelgrab.org.