Can the Supreme Court Lead Public Opinion? A Novel Experiment in Survey Design
By Craig Cummings and Robert Y. Shapiro
Of the three branches of government, Americans know the least about the Supreme Court, but they afford it more favorable approval ratings than they do the legislative and executive branches. Is the public’s high regard for the Supreme Court in part a function of its uncertainty about the Court’s decisions? Using a novel split-ballot, cross-sectional survey, we examined the effects of increased information about multiple Supreme Court decisions to measure the degree to which the Court can lead public opinion, and the extent to which public confidence in the Court is affected by exposure to this information.
While our approach to these questions yields findings about respondents' attitudes on issues that are interesting in themselves, it also—perhaps more importantly—emphasizes a need for researchers to use experimental survey designs to complement and supplement their explorations of leadership and public opinion. Existing studies can provide compelling evidence regarding which leaders and what political communications can influence opinion, but further work is needed to identify more precisely the causal mechanisms that can be attributed to their persuasive power. Though the use of experiments is not new to studies of the effects on individuals of new information and the content of reports in the mass media, we advocate more directed and systematic effort to study the effects elites can have through the positions they take on important policy issues.
Further, since experiments using national samples of adults are costly, we need efficient designs for studying complicated possibilities of leadership and persuasion involving several possible influences at the same time, including the question of how leaders' position-taking can subsequently affect public attitudes toward them. Here we present the results of one part of such an experimental design.
Past investigations about public opinion of the Supreme Court have found that “to know courts is to love them.” These studies, however, have also found that such affect toward courts is driven largely by exposure to symbols of justice and impartiality, not necessarily the courts' general or specific rulings. As one expert confirms, “In the research on the [Supreme] Court, it is the role of policy [versus the role of process] that has not received the attention it deserves.” This gap exists because the greatest challenge to examining this relationship has traditionally been discerning public awareness of specific Court decisions. Our solution was to expose a portion of our respondents directly to information about the substance of several major Supreme Court rulings.
The experiment was conducted by telephone as the first set of questions in the Caravan Omnibus Survey, fielded by the Opinion Research Corporation in
June 2003 to 1,010 adults. Respondents were randomly assigned to each ballot in the designed experiment.
We selected for our survey six issues and associated Court cases that have relevance for a number of subgroups of the public: euthanasia, public school funding, prayer in school, public education for children of illegal immigrants, homosexual relations, and affirmative action. Exposing respondents experimentally to the Court’s positions on these issues enabled us to estimate the extent to which the Court could “lead” public opinion. In other words, we could see if an individual would agree with the Court after being told how the Court ruled on that issue. The results would highlight the very possible real-world effects of increases in salience (through the mass media) of information about Court decisions on public attitudes toward those issues.