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Opinion Do Americans want Obama to pick Scalia’s replacement? Depends on the poll wording.

(EPA/Michael Reynolds)
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We now have four new national polls that attempt to gauge where public opinion is headed in the battle over whether Republicans will act on President Obama’s nominee to replace Antonin Scalia, and maddeningly enough, they don’t show any consensus. Two find majority support for Obama’s stance in this dispute, while two others show the public much more closely divided.

But a peek at the question wording of all of them offers some clues as to where the public stands, and with that, perhaps a hint as to how this fight might play out.

The new Fox News poll finds the biggest majority in support of Obama’s stance:

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent death has sparked a debate over how to fill the vacancy on the nation’s highest court. Taking into consideration that it’s an election year, which of the following is closer to your view?
It’s still the responsibility of current leaders, President Obama and the Senate, to take action to fill the vacancy now: 62
The president shouldn’t get to nominate someone for a lifetime appointment to the high court this late in his term: 34

The new Reuters/Ipsos poll finds the public supports Obama’s position, but not as dramatically (thanks to the Reuters polling team for sending over the question wording):

As you may know, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently passed away. Some people say a replacement should not be appointed until the next president takes office in January 2017, while others say the Supreme Court is too important to have a vacancy for 11 months. Which is closer to your opinion?
Wait for next president: 37
Nominate someone for the Supreme Court now: 54

But two other polls find the public much more divided. This week’s CBS New poll finds:

Would you like to see the next Supreme Court justice appointed by President Obama before the election in November or appointed by the president who will be elected in November?
Appointed by President Obama: 47
Appointed by President elected in 2016: 46

And this week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds:

Would you prefer the U.S. Senate vote this year on the replacement nominated by President Obama or leave the position vacant and wait to vote next year on the replacement nominated by the new president?
Vote this year on replacement: 43
Leave vacant and wait: 42

So how to explain the differences? One possibility: the latter two polls are neutral in their descriptions of the choice we face. By contrast, the question wording in the Fox and Reuters polls tries to present the arguments being offered on both sides — directly contrasting the idea that the public has a responsibility to act now, or that acting now is important, against the idea that the president should not appoint the next Justice because it is late in his term or because a new president is taking office in less than a year.

And so, in both the Fox and Reuters polls, barely more than one third of Americans support the basic underlying idea — when it is explicitly spelled out, as the wording of both of those do — that the president should not act now because of the electoral calendar. That’s the Republican position, though in fairness, Republicans offer a reason for this — that it would be disenfranchising to the American people for a president on his way out to have his nomination get through (even though that president was elected twice by popular majorities).

It’s possible that if polling questions also contained this Republican argument, the responses might be different. But based on what we have now, the public appears to reject the notion that Obama should not pick Scalia’s replacement simply because a new president will soon take over. Obviously some will conclude from this that wording the questions this way produces particular results. But at the same time, this is how the arguments are likely to be presented to the public.

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As Steve Benen says, one thing that we can safely conclude is that “the Republican idea of a blockade hasn’t exactly won over wide swaths of the American mainstream,” and that this may well get worse as this battle drags on. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean Republican will cave. As I’ve noted, Republicans are in a bind: if they do end up allowing hearings on Obama’s nominee, that could give Donald Trump and/or Ted Cruz a boost, since they will likely excoriate “the establishment” for caving. Worse, allowing hearings could maximize public exposure to Obama’s nominee, which (presuming he picks a moderate, which is in his interests, since he hopes to further shape the court as part of his legacy) could in turn make it harder still for Republicans to oppose that nominee.

So perhaps it’s better for Republicans to do nothing, keeping the base happy and minimizing the visibility of Obama’s pick among swing voters. The question would then become whether Democrats can make this politically painful enough to become untenable. The polling we have suggests some public skepticism towards the premise of the GOP argument. Whether that can be made to matter enough to get Republicans to enrage their base by surrendering (yes, it’s absurd that merely holding hearings would be seen as surrender, but that’s how conservatives will inevitably define it) is another question entirely.