Study: Attack Ads May Have Negative Impact on Public Opinion of Court
By Jerry Markon
Conservatives and liberals, beware: television ads attacking Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor -- or even supporting her -- may undermine public support for the court itself.
That's the word from researchers at Ohio State University, who studied the reaction to heated ads accompanying the confirmation battle over Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. in late 2005.
The result: the ads turned off so many viewers that many became less supportive of the court as an institution. In an interesting twist, the effect extended to conservative-sponsored ads supporting Alito – who was nominated by President George W. Bush – along with anti-Alito spots from liberals.
“In the minds of many viewers, the ads reduced Supreme Court justices to just ‘politicians in robes,’" said Gregory Caldeira, co-author of a new book detailing the research and a political science professor at Ohio State. "Anything that drags the Court into ordinary politics, such as these ads, damages the esteem of the institution."
He added that any ads about Sotomayor – President Obama’s choice for the court -- could also “undermine some of the public support for the Supreme Court.’’
Caldeira and a colleague from Washington University in St. Louis surveyed 1,001 Americans about their knowledge of the court in the summer of 2005 and re-interviewed hundreds after the nomination of Alito, who became a justice in early 2006. Questions included: “Do you believe the Supreme Court can usually be trusted to make decisions that are right for the country as a whole?’’
About 36 percent showed less support for the court after Alito’s nomination.
One anti-Alito ad cited in the study said he had "even voted to approve the strip-search of a ten-year-old girl. . . . The Right Wing has already taken over the West Wing. Don't let them take over your Supreme Court."
The ad was produced by a coalition of liberal groups that included the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. A spokeswoman for that organization said no one was immediately available for comment today.
A pro-Alito ad that countered "Everyday, desperate liberals make up a steady drip of attacks against Judge Samuel Alito” came from Progress for America, a now-defunct organization run by a lobbying firm with close ties to the Bush White House.
Stuart Roy, a public relations consultant who headed the group’s communications strategy, said today that “on the face of it, it certainly sounds surprising that a response ad would have that effect.’’
But he said the study’s overall results didn’t surprise him because “the entire campaign, against and for Alito, definitely had the feel of a high-stakes political battle. We were treating the nominee basically as a candidate, so you might expect some negative from that.’’
“We weren’t selling toothpaste,’’ Roy added.
June 17, 2009; 12:49 PM ET
Categories: Supreme Court
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