GOP Poll Claims Estrada Fight Damages Democrats

Posted March 11, 2003 at 5:52pm

Republicans are touting a recent internal poll showing that, across the board, voters do not approve of the Democratic blockade of judicial nominations. The poll, however, does not get at the attitudes of Hispanic voters.

David Winston, who conducted a recent survey regarding perceptions of the nomination fights, said the filibuster of appeals court nominee Miguel Estrada had only reinforced a broad public opinion that Senate Democrats had become a party of obstruction.

Winston’s poll showed a considerable edge for Republicans among several important subgroups of voters, as well as the overall sample of 1,000 registered voters. When asked if they would be more or less favorable toward Democratic candidates based on the Estrada filibuster, 42 percent said less favorable and only 32 percent said more favorable. Among self-identified “moderate independents,” 29 percent answered more favorably, with 39 percent unfavorable. Among those voters who were “undecided” on the Congressional generic ballot test, the split was 22 percent favorable, 42 percent unfavorable, for Democrats.

Winston acknowledged that the public wasn’t particularly savvy regarding the ins and outs of Estrada’s view or the state of the federal judiciary, but that the filibuster bolstered the public view of Democratic obstructionism.

“The more it’s out there, the more it’s going to solidify,” Winston argued. “It’s tying into a pre-existing belief.”

Little polling is generally done on the issue of judicial nominations. And in the Winston poll — the only one to be publicly released on Estrada — there was not a large enough sample of Hispanic voters to learn what they make of the treatment of the nominee, a native Honduran who some Republicans have said is the victim of a bias against Hispanic conservatives. The GOP believes this nomination fight can help them chip into the edge that Democrats have held among Hispanic voters.

Democrats have contended that Hispanics — now the nation’ s largest minority and a rapidly growing voting bloc in some key states — have paid little attention to the Estrada fight and are generally opposed to his confirmation.

But, like Republicans, Democrats have not offered up any polling to back up this claim.

Lower-court judicial nominations have never been considered a top-tier issue in Congressional elections. Last year Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said the issue ranked the lowest in public importance of any issue he had ever polled.

Even in Winston’ s poll, only one in 10 respondents could identify the Estrada filibuster as an issue they associated with Senate Democrats. But that was an unusually high percentage for the issue, Winston said, coming in ahead of public recognition of Democratic message efforts on education and health care.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), up for reelection next year in a state won by President Bush in 2000, dismissed GOP polls for “not giving them all the information” regarding the Estrada fight. Lincoln said the Democratic explanation for the filibuster — that there is a constitutional imperative to ensure that Estrada fully answers their questions on his judicial philosophy before he gets his lifetime appointment — is a message that can break through.

“If people aren’t listening, it’ s hard to understand,” she said. “But I think people are willing to listen. The explanation, I think, translates. And that is definitely a key when you’ re talking to constituents.”

With no end in sight to the Estrada stalemate, Democrats have to decide what they will do regarding a handful of other circuit court nominees that some in their Caucus have strong reservations about. More filibusters could be on the way, an approach that Republicans believe can be exploited in Senate campaigns next year in much the same way they attacked Democrats for obstructionism in 2002.

“It’ s now feeding into this overall concern of negativity, which is one of the reasons that caused the Senate to flip,” Winston said.