WASHINGTON — Midterm elections are usually referendums on the party in power in Washington. And in politics, "power" tends to be associated with the legislative and executive branches — otherwise known to most Americans in 2022 as the Democratic Congress and the Biden administration.
But this summer has brought a lot of attention to the third branch of government we all learned about in civics: the judiciary. And the latest NBC News poll finds a lot of lost faith in the Supreme Court after this summer's Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade.
Let's start with the most basic measure: overall feelings about the court.
Back in January 2021, 44% of voters had positive views of the highest court in the land, while only 19% had negative views. That gave the court a net positive rating of 25 percentage points — not bad in a country that is deeply divided politically.
But by this month’s survey, those numbers looked very different. The positive feelings number had dropped by 9 percentage points, to 35%, and the negative feelings number had jumped by 23 percentage points, to 42%. That works out to a net negative of 7 points for the court.
Even more dramatic than the overall shift, however, was how widespread the changes were. Across the electorate, there were dramatic moves.
Men went from a net positive of 28 percentage points in January 2021 to a net negative of 1. Women went from a net positive of 22 to a net negative of 13.
And there were shifts in views across all age groups. Among 18- to 34-year-olds, the court went from a slim net positive (plus-2) to a strong net negative (minus-27). With 35- to 49-year-olds, feelings went from a solid net positive (plus-24) to a net negative (minus-2). And among voters 65 and older, the court went from being plus-36 to minus-4.
The one age group for which the Supreme Court stayed in positive territory was 50- to 64-year-olds. But even among that group, the court went from being viewed positively by 37 percentage points to being viewed positively by just 5 points. That's a big drop.
One breakdown of the data that offers a slightly different view is political partisanship. That stands to reason, of course — the GOP has been actively advocating to overturn the Roe decision for years, and this summer the court gave the party that victory. But the Republican number hasn't really moved since January 2021. Meanwhile, the numbers among Democrats and independents have shifted sharply.
In January 2021, all three partisan groups held net positive views of the Supreme Court. Democrats were a net plus-15. Independents had a massive net positive of 37 points. And Republicans were a net positive by an even larger 39 points.
But by this month, Democrats had turned sharply against the court, giving it a net negative of 51 points, while independents had moved to a net negative of 8 points. Republicans were essentially flat in their views of the court, holding a net positive view by about 36 points.
In other words, voter groups that make up more than half the electorate swung heavily against the court, while voters who make up about 40% of the electorate were unchanged. If you're a Republican, those are probably not comforting numbers.
Outside partisan politics, one other group held a particularly high positive view of the court in August: white evangelical Christians.
The poll didn’t break out that category of voters in January 2021; in the new poll, 56% said they had positive views of the court, while 21% said they had negative views. That's a net positive of 35 percentage points.
That could be a plus for Republicans. White evangelical Christians tend to lean right, and they seem pretty pleased with the court. But in many communities, the group makes up a relatively small slice of the electorate — and other measures in the poll don't show they aren't especially excited about this year's midterms compared to other groups.
As summer turns to fall, keep these numbers in mind. They could play an important role in November's midterms. If voters want to use their ballots to register their feelings about the party in power, their definition may extend beyond Congress and the White House to the judiciary.
Voters don’t get to directly elect federal judges, but they do get to elect the people who select and confirm them. And the latest set of poll numbers suggests that feelings have turned sour toward the nine men and women who sit on the Supreme Court.