A New York Times/CBS News survey finds that Americans have a slightly lower opinion of the Supreme Court than they did before it upheld most of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, including its individual health insurance mandate (redefined as a tax), on June 28. Or maybe not. The share of respondents who approved of the job the Court is doing fell from 44 percent last month to 41 percent this month, while the share expressing disapproval rose from 36 percent to 41 percent. The poll's statistical margin of error is three percentage points, however, and the Times notes that "shifts in results between polls over time…have a larger sampling error." So even though this apparent shift is highlighted in the headline and the lead of the paper's story about the survey, we probably should not read too much into it, especially since more respondents approved of the health care decision than disapproved of it (46 percent vs. 41 percent). The latter breakdown is rather startling, given that just last month another New York Times/CBS News poll found that "two-thirds of Americans hope that the court overturns some or all of the 2010 health care law."
Despite the fact that supporters of upholding the law now outnumber opponents, 53 percent of respondents said the Court's decision to do so was "mainly based on the justices's personal or political views," while only 31 percent thought it was "mainly based on legal analysis." As for the content of that analysis, 55 percent deemed the "shared responsibility payment" imposed on people who fail to obtain government-approved medical coverage "more of a penalty" (which is not surprising, since that's what the law calls it and since the poll question described the payment as a "fine"), while only 34 percent considered it "more of a tax." Counterintuitively, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to call it a tax, even though that label was the basis for the Court's decision, which was decidedly less popular among Republicans than among Democrats. Possibly Republicans hate taxes so much that they feel the term expresses more disapproval than a mere penalty. (Mitt Romney, by contrast, said after the decision that he considered the payment a penalty, only to reverse himself two days later, saying he felt bound by the Court's nomenclature.) Finally, 53 percent of respondents said they did not know enough about John Roberts, who wrote the health care decision and has been chief justice since 2005, to form an impression of him. Another 20 percent were undecided.
To recap: Americans wanted the Supreme Court to overturn ObamaCare, and they're glad it didn't. The Court is less popular (maybe) than before the health care ruling, which most respondents thought was driven by personal preferences or ideology rather than legal analysis, although a plurality though it was correct. At the same time, most rejected the rationale for upholding the individual mandate, even as the respondents overwhelmingly declined to express an opinion about the justice who came up with it. Although these wildly shifting and seemingly contradictory opinions are bewildering at first blush, I have a theory that could explain them: The views expressed in polls, which demand that people pass judgment on matters about which they may know next to nothing, are not necessarily well informed or well considered.
The new poll results are here.