After three days of riveting, incendiary and utterly contradictory testimony, more Americans side with Judge Clarence Thomas than with Anita Faye Hill, the law professor who charges that he sexually harassed her, a new Times Poll has found.
Despite Hill’s graphic accusations, 51% of those surveyed believe the Senate should still confirm Thomas to a seat on the Supreme Court, twice as many as the 25% who believe he should be rejected. That represents only a moderate erosion from his public support in September, when Americans backed his nomination by a 54-19 margin, according to a Times survey.
Sorting through the razor-edged charges and countercharges swirling through the nationally televised hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 37% of those polled said they believe Hill was telling the truth when she claimed Thomas sexually harassed her while she worked for him at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But 46% said they thought the charges were false.
Those polled also leaned toward Thomas when asked in other ways to pick between the differing accounts. Asked if they believed Thomas’ denial of the charges, 51% said yes, and 33% said no. Finally, when asked whose version of events they tended to believe more, those surveyed sided with Thomas by a margin of 48 to 35.
But the poll also indicated that few of those watching the hearings are unequivocally sure whom to believe. Only 6% of those polled said Hill’s accusations were definitely true, while just over double that number said they were definitely false. Over 60% of those surveyed could not say that the accusations were more than “probably” true or false.
In the end, Americans have already conceded the likelihood of ambiguity: A solid majority of those polled said it was unlikely the charges will definitely be proven true or false.
The poll, supervised by Times Poll Director John Brennan, surveyed 1,264 Americans, from 4 p.m. PDT on Saturday--when Thomas indignantly rejected the charges in a daylong appearance before the committee--until 4 p.m. on Sunday, just after four people testified that Hill years ago had told them Thomas had sexually harassed her, and after Hill herself reportedly passed a polygraph test on her charges.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points
Though Hill’s defenders dominated the airwaves on Sunday, the poll found opinion drifting only minimally toward her throughout the day. Among those polled on Saturday, a 48% to 33% plurality said they believed Thomas’ version of events more than Hill’s. On Sunday the margin was essentially unchanged, at 48% to 36%.
Those figures suggested that despite the continued fluidity of opinion, the array of contradictory statements may not be moving public opinion as much as many believe, said Times Poll Director Brennan. In a New York Times/CBS poll taken just before the hearings on Wednesday, Americans backed Thomas’ nomination by the same roughly 2-1 margin found in the new Times survey.
Despite the repeated observation from senators and commentators alike that the hearings had irrevocably scarred both the accuser and the nominee, in public opinion at least, Hill appeared to be taking more of a beating. Just one-third of those surveyed said they admired Hill, while 51% said they did not. For Thomas, the numbers reversed, with 58% saying they admired him, and 32% saying they did not.
That represents a substantial improvement from the September poll, when just 31% said they admired the judge, and 49% indicated they had “only some” or “not much at all” admiration for Thomas.
Looking at the broader impacts of the explosive controversy, almost half of those surveyed said the hearings were likely to have “a positive impact on the way American society handles the problem of sexual harassment against women.” But 41% of those questioned said the hearings had decreased their confidence in government, almost four times the number who said the events had enhanced their opinion of government institutions.
A narrow majority said they considered the congressional confirmation process for high government positions, such as the Supreme Court, to be “flawed”, with over one-quarter calling it “very flawed.”
The survey found Americans transfixed by the unprecedented and highly emotional hearings, with three-fourths saying they were closely following the proceedings and an equal number saying they had watched the testimony of both principals.
The survey found that the sexual harassment charges have become the central issue on which Americans are judging the nominee. Among those who believe Hill, just 23% say Thomas should be confirmed; among those who disbelieve Hill, 82% say he should be confirmed. Overall, though, over 70% of those surveyed said the Senate should reject Thomas if Hill’s accusations “prove true.”
Strikingly, the poll found only a moderate gender gap between men and women on several of the questions. Women clearly tended to put more faith in Hill’s allegations: Asked which side they believed, men favored Thomas by a 20 percentage point plurality, while women leaned toward the judge’s version of events by a 6 point plurality. Likewise just 34% of men said they believed Hill’s charges, as compared with 41% of women.
But on the central question of whether the Senate should place Thomas on the court, men and women significantly converged. Men supported confirmation by 54% to 25%, women by 48% to 25%.
Thomas’ level of support among women was only slightly diminished from the September survey--when they backed his confirmation by a 47-20 margin--and did not represent a substantially greater erosion than he has endured among men.
On the major questions, the poll found little difference between the perspectives of married and unmarried women. Similarly, women who work outside the home held essentially the same moderately pro-Thomas views as those who maintain a home.
But, not surprisingly, faith in Hill’s account was much greater among the 30% of women who said they had been sexually harassed. A majority of those women said they believed Hill’s story and a slight plurality said they admired her. But even a thin plurality of these women--perhaps the constituency most keenly attuned to the issues raised in the hearings--believe the Senate still should confirm Thomas.
More telling than the gap between men and women in the survey was the gulf between whites and blacks. Blacks evidenced substantially more support for Thomas, who would be only the second African-American to serve on the Supreme Court. Despite the near-universal opposition to Thomas by civil rights organizations, 61% of blacks support Thomas’ confirmation, up from 55% in September. Among whites support has actually dropped from 55% in September to 50% in the latest survey.
Just 31% of blacks said they believed Hill’s version of events, as compared with 37% of whites. Among blacks over one-third believe Thomas should be confirmed even if the charges are borne out, while just one-fifth of whites feel that way.
And blacks were far more likely than whites to see political machinations at work in the surfacing of the charges: Three-fifths of blacks said they considered the charges “an orchestrated campaign to discredit the nominee’s character” while just three in 10 called the proceedings “a necessary inquiry.” By sharp contrast, whites narrowly divided on the question, with a 49% to 41% plurality viewing them as an orchestrated effort.
Though the differences were less dramatic, the poll found that younger people were more supportive of Thomas than older Americans. Nearly three-fifths of those 18 to 25 said Thomas should be confirmed; his support dropped to 51% among baby boomers aged 26 to 45, to 48% among those 45 and older.
Partisan differences were also somewhat muted, with even a plurality of Democrats still supporting Thomas’ confirmation. Democrats split 42% to 36% in favor of the nomination, while independents backed Thomas by 52% to 24%, and Republicans stood behind President Bush’s choice by an overwhelming 67% to 17%.
Though the alternately gripping and dispiriting spectacle appears to have further soured Americans’ view of their national government, few considered the proceedings themselves unfair. Almost three-fifths of those polled said they believed the Judiciary Committee had been fair to Thomas, while just one-third thought his treatment inequitable. By a similar 58% to 34% margin, respondents said they considered press behavior “responsible” throughout the imbroglio.
On the other hand, by a margin exceeding 2 to 1, Americans condemned the leak of internal committee documents that forced the Senate to reopen the investigation, just hours before they were scheduled to vote on--and likely approve--Thomas’ nomination last Tuesday. Despite all that has happened in the tumultuous and historic days since, most Americans expect the same result when the Senate finally votes on the issue: By a 50% to 33% majority, those surveyed said they expect Thomas to survive the confirmation vote, now scheduled for Tuesday night.
HOW THE POLL WAS CONDUCTED
The Times Poll interviewed 1,264 adult Americans nationwide, by telephone, Saturday, Oct. 12, and Sunday, Oct. 13. A total of 606 interviews were conducted on Saturday and 658 on Sunday. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list which includes all telephone exchanges in the United States. Random-digit dialing techniques were used to ensure that both listed and unlisted telephone numbers had an opportunity to be contacted. Oversampling of blacks provided a larger-sized subsample for analysis, which was then weighted down to its proper share in the nationwide sample. Results were adjusted slightly to conform with census figures on variables such as sex, race and national origin, age, education and household size. The margin of sampling error for percentages based on the total sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For certain subgroups the error margin is somewhat higher.
The Times Poll: Hill vs. Thomas Based on interviews with 1,264 respondents nationwide, Oct 12 and 13. Do you think Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas are:
All Americans Men Women Whites Blacks Definitely true 6% 5% 8% 6% 5% Probably true 31 29 33 31 26 Probably false 32 34 31 32 34 Definitely false 14 17 10 13 18 No opinion 17 15 18 18 17
Do you think Thomas’ denials of the charges are:
All Americans Men Women Whites Blacks Definitely true 15% 15% 14% 15% 20% Probably true 36 38 34 37 32 Probably false 25 25 26 26 22 Definitely false 8 8 8 8 10 No opinion 16 14 18 14 16
Whose version of events do you tend to believe more:
All Americans Men Women Whites Blacks Hill-Certain 18% 15% 21% 20% 9% Hill-Not so certain 17 17 17 16 17 Thomas-Not so certain 17 20 15 17 13 Thomas-Certain 30 32 29 31 35 Neither/Both 7 6 6 5 10 No opinion 11 10 12 11 16
Who bears burden to prove they’re telling the truth:
All Americans Men Women Whites Blacks Hill 47% 51% 44% 47% 46% Thomas 41 42 40 41 44 Neither/Both 7 4 9 7 7 No opinion 5 3 7 5 3
Should Thomas be confirmed or rejected? Oct. 12-13
All Americans Men Women Whites Blacks Confirm 51% 54% 48% 50% 61% Reject 25 25 25 26 16 No Opinion 24 21 27 24 23
Should Thomas be confirmed or rejected? Sept. 21-25
All Americans Confirm 54% Reject 19 No Opinion 27
Has the committee investigation been:
Is the way the U.S. Senate goes about confirming nominees to federal government positions:
All Americans Men Women Whites Blacks Sound 39% 42% 36% 41% 32% Flawed 53 52 54 52 58 No opinion 8 6 10 7 10