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Opposition to Kavanaugh Had Been Rising Before Accusation

Opposition to Kavanaugh Had Been Rising Before Accusation

Story Highlights

  • Public was tilting against confirmation, 42% to 39%
  • In prior surveys, more favored than opposed confirmation
  • Nominees typically see rise in opposition during confirmation process

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In polling conducted last week, partly before and partly after allegations that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted a teenage girl when he was a teen, 39% of Americans said they favored his confirmation to the Supreme Court and 42% were opposed. That represents a slight shift from two prior surveys in which more thought his nomination should be confirmed rather than rejected.

Line graph. The percentage of Americans opposed to Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court rose to 42%.

The latest poll was conducted Sept. 10-16. Last Wednesday, Sept. 12, a news report surfaced that there were sensitive allegations against Kavanaugh, and on Sept. 14, a reporter for The New Yorker detailed that those allegations involved sexual assault. On Sunday, The Washington Post published an interview with the accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. Kavanaugh has strongly denied the allegations.

Polling conducted Sept. 14-16 -- consisting of roughly 600 interviews -- showed no meaningful change in views on the Kavanaugh nomination compared with polling done earlier in the week. Thus, opposition to Kavanaugh was already increasing before the allegations were publicized, and the allegations appeared to have had no immediately negative effect on public opinion. The shift seen before the allegations may be in response to the Sept. 4-7 Senate confirmation hearings. Now that the sexual assault story has become front-page news, it is unclear if opinion might shift in the coming days. The Senate has scheduled hearings for Monday and invited both Kavanaugh and Ford to testify.

Rise in Opposition to Nominees Is the Norm

Greater opposition over the course of a confirmation process is consistent with the historical trends for past Supreme Court nominees, even for those who had relatively smooth confirmations.

Historically, as the confirmation process plays out, Americans become more likely to have an opinion about whether the nominee should be confirmed, based on data for seven prior nominees about whom Gallup polled on multiple occasions. The average 10-point drop in the percentage not having an opinion between the initial measurement on their nomination and the final measure has mostly been accompanied by an increase in the percentage opposed to the nominee, averaging seven percentage points, with a minimal change in the percentage favoring confirmation.

Changes in Opinions About Supreme Court Nominations Between Initial and Final Readings
Would you like to see the Senate vote in favor of [...] serving on the Supreme Court, or not?
First reading Final reading Change, vote in favor Change, not vote in favor Change, no opinion
pct. pts. pct. pts. pct. pts.
Kagan May 2010 Aug 2010 0 +4 -4
Sotomayor May 2009 Jul 2009 +1 +8 -10
Alito Nov 2005 Jan 2006 +4 +5 -9
Miers Oct 2005 Oct 2005 -2 +7 -5
Roberts Jul 2005 Sep 2005 +1 +4 -5
Thomas Jul 1991 Oct 1991 +6 +13 -19
Bork Aug 1987 Sep 1987 +7 +10 -18
AVERAGE +2 +7 -10

Opposition to Kavanaugh's nomination has increased five points compared with the initial poll on his confirmation in July, with the percentage in favor down two points and a three-point decline in no opinion.

Most prior nominees were well-regarded by the public when first announced, so any increase in opposition later in the process still left Americans solidly behind their confirmation. Because opinions about Kavanaugh's confirmation were divided from the start, the fairly modest shift in opinion since July has been enough to make him just the second nominee who ever had opposition that exceeded support.

Harriet Miers is the other prior high-court nominee who did not have greater support than opposition. Just before her October 2005 nomination was withdrawn amid increasing questions about her qualifications, 42% of Americans favored the Senate confirmation of Miers and 43% were opposed. That compared with a 44% to 36% gap in favor of her confirmation just after George W. Bush chose her.

Gallup has asked about 11 of the past 14 Supreme Court nominees since 1987 at least once. Robert Bork is the only other nominee for whom support did not exceed opposition by a significant margin in Gallup's final measure before the Senate vote.

Support for Prior Supreme Court Nominees, Final Survey, 1987-2018
Would you like to see the Senate vote in favor of […] serving on the Supreme Court, or not?
Vote in favor Not vote in favor Margin
% % pct. pts.
Brett Kavanaugh 39 42 -3
Neil Gorsuch 45 32 +13
Merrick Garland 52 29 +23
Elena Kagan 46 36 +10
Sonia Sotomayor 55 36 +19
Samuel Alito 54 30 +24
Harriet Miers 42 43 -1
John Roberts 60 26 +34
Ruth Bader Ginsburg 53 14 +39
Clarence Thomas 58 30 +28
Robert Bork 38 35 +3
Reading for Kavanaugh is latest. Gallup did not measure support for the nominations of Anthony Kennedy, David Souter or Stephen Breyer. Gallup measured support for Neil Gorsuch, Merrick Garland and Ruth Bader Ginsburg just once, shortly after each was first nominated.

There are similarities between the Kavanaugh revelations and sexual harassment allegations made against Clarence Thomas during his 1991 hearings. While opposition to Thomas' nomination did grow significantly in the fall of 1991, from 17% to 30%, his support never dropped below the 52% he enjoyed in the initial poll. On the eve of the Senate vote, an Oct. 14 Gallup Poll found 58% in favor of the Senate confirming Thomas and 30% opposed.

Line graph. Before Clarence Thomas’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, 58% of Americans supported it, 30% opposed.

Record Polarization in Views of Kavanaugh Confirmation

Opinions about Supreme Court nominations have become increasingly polarized by party over time, likely reflecting the same trends seen in ratings of presidents. In the 1990s, slightly more than 20 percentage points separated Democrats' and Republicans' views of whether Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg should be confirmed. Beginning in the mid-2000s, Republicans' and Democrats' opinions on nominees have diverged by at least 40 points. Last year, there was a 53-point gap in party support for President Donald Trump's first nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

Opinions about Kavanaugh's confirmation have been the most politically polarized to date, with an average 60-point gap in the percentage of Republicans (75%) and Democrats (15%) who want him to be confirmed.

Partisan Gaps in Favor of Prior Supreme Court Nominees
Figures are the average percentage who want the nominee confirmed across all measurements for the nominee
Republicans Independents Democrats Republican-Democratic Gap
% % % pct. pts.
Kavanaugh 75 37 15 60
Gorsuch 74 44 21 53
Garland 33 44 76 -43
Kagan 23 44 69 -45
Sotomayor 27 53 76 -49
Alito 75 45 32 43
Miers 70 38 25 45
Roberts 79 52 39 40
Ginsburg 41 52 65 -24
Thomas 67 51 45 22

The already low support for Kavanaugh among Democrats could be one reason the sexual assault allegations have not yet affected the opinion of his confirmation. His 37% support among independents is also on the low end of past measurements for that group, although there is still room for that to decline. Kavanaugh's 75% support among Republicans is right in line with what the president's co-partisans have given prior nominees.


The sexual assault allegations have undoubtedly imperiled Kavanaugh's nomination. The public had not been overly enthusiastic about his nomination from the beginning, although until now that might have had as much to do with Trump's unpopularity and increased political polarization as with Kavanaugh himself.

But even before the allegations surfaced late last week, Americans' attitudes had tilted against Kavanaugh's confirmation. Senators uncomfortable with voting to confirm him could factor public opinion into their decision calculus. And if they do, voting against Kavanaugh would not be inconsistent with public preferences, in contrast to what was the case for Thomas in 1991. As more is learned about the allegations in the coming days, opinion could shift more solidly against Kavanaugh's being confirmed. It is also possible the further investigation into the incident could work to Kavanaugh's benefit and turn the tide of public opinion back in his favor.

View complete question responses and trends.

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