The Politics of Accountability in Supreme Court Nominations: Voter Recall and Assessment of Senator Votes on Nominees

Publication Year


Journal Article
While longstanding theories of political behavior argue that voters do not possess  sufficient political knowledge to hold their elected representatives accountable, recent revisionist theoretical and empirical accounts challenge this view, arguing that voters can both follow how their representatives vote and use that information intelligently. We apply the revisionist account to the study of Supreme Court nominations in the modern era. Using survey data on the nominations of Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, we show that voters can and do hold senators accountable for their votes on Supreme Court nominees.  In particular, we show that voters on average can correctly recall the votes of their senators on nominees, and that correct recall is correlated with higher levels of education and political knowledge. We then show that voters are more likely to approve of their senator if he or she casts a vote on a nominee that is in line with the voter's preferences. Finally, we show the magnitude of this effect is quite sizable, as it exceeds the effect of agreement on other high-profile roll call votes. These results have important implications for both the broader study of representation and for understanding the current politics of Supreme Court nominations.
Political Science Research Methods