To start, the appointment of a liberal justice to replace Scalia would have fundamentally shifted the balance of the court in a liberal direction. As a result, Republicans may have felt they had more to lose if Garland had been confirmed than Democratic voters do now if Gorsuch is confirmed, an outcome that would effectively maintain the ideological status quo ante on the court.
“I think a lot of the current political dynamic has to do with the composition of the court,” said Martha Ginn, a political science professor at Augusta University, who studies public opinion of the judiciary. “If it had been [liberal Justice Ruth Bader] Ginsburg who had died, that might have provoked stronger opposition from Democratic voters to the potential confirmation of a conservative judge than what you’re seeing now.”
Polling data indicates that conservative voters are more dissatisfied with the Supreme Court than liberals, which may contribute to a heightened sense among Republicans that the current appointment is worth fighting over. A Pew Research Center survey from 2015 found that 62 percent of Democrats viewed the court favorably, while only 33 percent of Republicans felt the same. By 2016, Republicans’ views of the court had improved, but Democrats still viewed the court significantly more favorably, with only 57 percent of Republicans reporting a favorable opinion of the court compared to 73 percent of Democrats.
The Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority, hasn’t actually become more ideologically liberal in its decision-making in recent years. Still, voters may be more attuned to the fact that some of the most high-profile cases in recent memory, including the court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, and uphold the Affordable Care Act, have delivered political victories to Democrats, according to John Kastellec, a political science professor at Princeton who focuses on judicial politics. “There is perhaps a discrepancy between the overall ideology of the court, and the public opinion of the court among conservatives,” Kastellec said in an interview. “Some of the most salient decisions in recent years have come out on the liberal side, and have tended to be viewed favorably by liberals and less favorably by conservatives.”
That’s not to say that liberal voters don’t care about the Supreme Court. An overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans, at 92 percent and 90 percent respectively, believe that “decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court have an impact on my everyday life as a citizen,” according a C-SPAN poll released on Friday.
There are plenty of Democrats who don’t want Gorsuch confirmed. It’s just that in the end, liberals may care slightly less about this particular Supreme Court appointment than conservatives. Pew data indicates that although a full 50 percent of Democrats believe Gorsuch shouldn’t be confirmed, an even higher percentage of Republicans, at 55 percent, didn’t want Garland to be confirmed. Similarly, while a majority of Democrats, at 67 percent, supported Garland’s nomination, a higher percentage of Republicans, 78 percent, support Gorsuch.