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In Line, But Out of Step With Public?

At a candidate forum at Howard University, Democrats decried a Supreme Court decision on schools and race. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A new poll out this morning from Quinnipiac University, shows Democratic presidential candidates decidedly out of the mainstream in their universal opposition to the Supreme Court's decision to limit how race can be used in public school assignments.

But are they really out of step?

In the June PBS presidential forum at Howard University, the Democratic candidates lined up against the court's decision to restrict school boards' use of race in specific school assignment. The high court ruling may severely limit efforts to make the nation's public schools more racially diverse, and the candidates used the verdict--announced the same day as the debate--to display their bona fides before the largely African American audience.

But in the new poll, 71 percent of registered voters said they agree with the court's ruling, only 24 percent said they disagree with it. Moreover, the poll reports majorities of Democrats (64 percent), Republicans (79 percent) and independents (71 percent) alike agreeing that "public schools may not consider an individual's race when deciding which students are assigned to specific schools."

Does this make the Democrats' firm opposition to the court's ruling tone-deaf, heroic or a pander to an important primary constituency? It might actually be none of the above.

A point on the polling is relevant here, especially when the topic is a Supreme Court decision that many might not have followed. In a July Pew poll, a majority, 53 percent, said they followed news about the case "not too" (19 percent) or "not at all" closely (34 percent). In cases such as this one, what goes into the question can go a long way to explaining the results.

Quinnipiac's question asked respondents whether race should be a factor in school assignments, and in the absence of a counterargument few said it should. Newsweek got an even more lopsided result with a similar question in a July poll. Without a reason to include race or mention of the likely implications of the court's ruling, it's natural that most Americans would opt not to consider race in school assignments, or anything else.

What we found in the most recent Post-ABC News national poll is that giving some context to the court's decision yielded more nuance and a different result.

In our poll, we included one primary criticism of the court's ruling, namely that the decision would be a setback for integration efforts. After all, the court's decision was by a razor thin 5-4 vote and a 2004 Time-CNN poll found that 82 percent said the 1954 Brown v. Board decision had been good for the U.S.

In the Post-ABC poll, 56 percent of all Americans disapproved of the court's ruling in the school race case; 40 percent approved. Republicans and independents were evenly split on the decision, while nearly seven in 10 Democrats were lined up against it.

Maybe the Democratic candidates aren't at odds with the public after all, especially the majority of Democrats in the country.

Of course, what and how much context to include in poll questions is a judgment call. It's also why we always release our questionnaires in full, so you can determine for yourself if we asked questions in a balanced way. Here's a link to the poll covering the Supreme Court (see question 43 for exacting wording). Quinnipiac does the same on their site.

--Jon Cohen

By Washington Post editors  |  August 16, 2007; 3:55 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , The Pollster  
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There is no contradiction between Brown vs Board of Education and the Supreme Court's recent ruling. Both rulings require nondiscrimination on the basis of race. A substantial majority of Americans agree with the Court. The far left is unhappy, because they value forced "diversity" over nondiscrimination, just as fifty years ago, the opposition to Brown valued forced segregation over nondiscrimination. Segregation is dead. Let's hope the diversity mania follows it to the grave. Long live nondiscrimination! It's part of what America is about.

Posted by: braian | September 2, 2007 6:36 PM | Report abuse

teh American public is very sensible when it comes to race now. Generally, it's "Don't favor anyone on the basis of race." So that's why we see these contortions by the candidates. They are all afraid to be seen or perceived "as racist" instead of standing up for someething. This is because the media runs on perceptions and not rational facts. So the candidates don't want to be "perceived" one way or the other by media who will leap on any statement that can catapult into "racism." It's the reason why we are so tired of the mainstream media.

Posted by: genuardiguy | August 31, 2007 12:10 PM | Report abuse

And if you had polled the issue in the late 40s you would have found the same results.

Which is exactly why the Court's decision in Brown v. Board was right, and this most recent one was wrong.

Posted by: dailykos1 | August 17, 2007 12:49 AM | Report abuse

THIS is what happens when you change your positions frequently depending on what particular special interest group you are talking to.

And THIS is why the Democrats rarely win elections.

Posted by: gthstonesman | August 16, 2007 4:35 PM | Report abuse

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