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Court fight Roberts can be beaten

An exciting new methodology has produced some surprising results on the Roberts nomination.

We, like almost all pollsters, use focus groups, but they have real weaknesses. New online discussion technology helps to overcome some of those limitations.

Instead of talking to just 20 people a night, one can talk to 100 at once. Instead of having participants influenced by dominant personalities, everyone can respond in private. And instead of limiting every individual’s participation to just a few minutes, you can hear from almost every respondent on every question.

An exciting new methodology has produced some surprising results on the Roberts nomination.

We, like almost all pollsters, use focus groups, but they have real weaknesses. New online discussion technology helps to overcome some of those limitations.

Instead of talking to just 20 people a night, one can talk to 100 at once. Instead of having participants influenced by dominant personalities, everyone can respond in private. And instead of limiting every individual’s participation to just a few minutes, you can hear from almost every respondent on every question.

We deployed this new technique a week ago in a session on the Roberts nomination, and it yielded some fascinating results.

Of course this is not a poll. Participants are recruited as for a focus group, so results are not projectable to the population as a whole, although this group of swing voters, like the electorate overall, started out largely ignorant of Judge John Roberts’s record but positively disposed toward his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice. After being exposed to information about his briefs and decisions as well as to the administration’s positive spin on his background, however, voters turned dramatically again him.

Initially, 55 percent leaned toward support for confirmation. But by the end of the group, a large majority took a very different view, with 76 percent opposed to confirmation.

That shift cut across demographic categories, even party — anti-Roberts sentiment at the end of the session was equally strong among both Bush and Kerry voters. (The text of the information we provided participants is available on our clients’ website or from us.)

The reasons for this switch were evident from the rest of the results. More than anything else, voters want a justice who is fair, open-minded and above partisan politics. Roberts’s expressed desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, along with his brief in support of Operation Rescue, arguing that the group’s violent clinic blockades were not discrimination against women, told voters on both sides of the aisle that he lacked those critical qualities.

A large majority of respondents (79 percent) initially felt that a nominee’s statement in support of overturning Roe would be sufficient grounds for opposing confirmation. Many participants explained this position in the context of fundamental rights: “Freedom to choose one’s path in life is the foundation of this country, and nothing should jeopardize that”; “It’s a right-to-privacy issue!” Some others focused on continuity of the law: “This issue has been decided already. … It is time to get on with the matters coming up today, not rehashing things that have already been decided by the previous justices”; “Should we change the entire constitution?”

Before any discussion of Roberts, 56 percent of participants believed that if 40 senators strongly disagree with the judicial philosophy of President Bush’s nominee they should filibuster the nominee while 44 percent opposed use of the filibuster. Sixty-one percent (61 percent) believed that Bush should nominate someone else if his nominee could get a 51-vote majority but not 60 votes.

After hearing about Roberts, however, 85 percent of respondents said what they heard was important enough to warrant a filibuster. They cited the importance of a lifetime Supreme Court appointment, of consensus and of avoiding partisanship as reasons for a 60-vote requirement: “Sixty percent makes sure that, if the Senate is tilted toward any political party, that the other side has a point of view also,” said one respondent.

This new technology leads us to a conclusion that goes against the grain of conventional wisdom. Public opinion on the Roberts nomination can be turned — but only if voters learn much more about his statements and decisions. The only question now: Will anyone take up the challenge?

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.