Soon after Christine Blasey Ford, a Palo Alto University professor, came forward to speak publicly about an allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school, senators, including Republicans, urged that the confirmation vote be delayed until the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from Ford. With the possibility that Ford will testify, it’s hard to avoid comparing Kavanaugh to the other modern Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual misconduct during his nomination: Clarence Thomas, who was nominated by George H.W. Bush in 1991.
The two cases have many differences, not least among them the cultural context in which they did and are taking place. But looking back, how did the public respond to Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Thomas in 1991, and what might that tell us about how the public might respond to Kavanaugh now?
First, Thomas’s nomination was extremely popular among the public. In a July Gallup poll taken soon after Thomas’s nomination, 52 percent of Americans supported his confirmation, while just 17 percent were against it. Just after he was nominated, Thomas polled better than just about any other modern Supreme Court nominee.
What’s more, after Hill came forward to testify against him in early October of 1991, Thomas’s support only rose, eventually peaking at 58 percent in Gallup’s historical tracking.
And while Americans were by and large in favor of delaying the confirmation vote until Hill had a chance to testify before the committee, her testimony didn’t shift opinions. Forty-seven percent of Americans thought the accusations against Thomas were not true, while 21 percent thought they were, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted days before Hill testified. After her testimony was broadcast on live TV, another CBS News/New York Times poll found that an even greater share doubted Hill’s accusations; 54 percent said they thought her charges were untrue, and 27 percent thought they were true. According to a Times article on the poll, “there was little difference” in the responses from men and women.
Thomas, of course, was confirmed 52-48, and senators indicated that the polling was, in part, what convinced them to vote for him. According to a 1991 USA Today article, when asked about his vote in favor of Thomas, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama (who was a Democrat at the time) highlighted that polls from his state showed support for the nominee. The article said that Bob Dole, then the Senate minority leader, “acknowledged Thomas would have been rejected if the polls had not swung in his favor.”
It’s difficult to imagine the Thomas confirmation hearings playing out the same way now. Even just one year after Thomas’s confirmation, surveys found that Americans had shifted their perspective in favor of Hill. By a margin of 43 percent to 39 percent, Americans believed the law professor over Thomas, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in October of 1992. In June of 1994, an ABC News poll found 34 percent of Americans thought Hill was sexually harassed by Thomas, while 31 percent thought she was not. The rest either said they didn’t know or didn’t have an opinion.
What changed? Women. Specifically, how they viewed sexual harassment in the wake of Hill’s testimony. In 1986, long before Thomas was nominated to the court, 17 percent of Americans said sexual harassment was a “big problem” for women in the workplace, according to a Time/Yankelovich Clancy Shulman poll. The majority — 67 percent — said it was “somewhat of a problem.” Once Hill’s allegations surfaced in 1991, polls showed increased sensitivity to sexual harassment. A poll conducted by the same pollster the day before Hill testified found that the share of people who said sexual harassment was a “big problem” had more than doubled. Months after Hill’s testimony, 44 percent of Americans in a Life Magazine poll said sexual harassment in the workplace for women was a “very serious” problem.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation, meanwhile, is playing out during the #MeToo era, and public opinion of what is and isn’t appropriate behavior by men toward women has changed dramatically. In a 2018 poll by ABC News and The Washington Post, 72 percent of Americans said sexual harassment was a serious problem for women in the workplace — far higher than the share who felt that way before and just after Hill’s testimony. Recognition of sexual misconduct as a problem has substantially shifted even compared with just a few years ago. In 2011, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 47 percent of Americans said sexual harassment was a serious problem.
Another big difference: Kavanaugh is far less popular than Thomas was. Kavanaugh entered the nomination process with one of the lowest approval scores for a nominee. And while Thomas’s support increased throughout the nomination process, Kavanaugh’s hasn’t changed much since he entered the arena. The most recent Gallup poll, conducted in August, found that support for the Trump nominee stands at a net 4 point approval, the same as it was in July. A more current poll, conducted in September by CNN, found slightly less support for his confirmation.
So, while Thomas was boosted by his high approval marks in the polls, Kavanaugh is not likely to get the same political advantage, considering his low level of public support. His poll numbers may change in the coming days and weeks as the story develops, but it’s difficult to say which factors will affect them more.
Again, the Thomas and Kavanaugh cases might have more differences than similarities:
- Kavanaugh’s nomination is taking place at a time when political polarization is at an all time high, and more often than not, that seems to determine opinions on issues. Thomas had support from both Democrats and Republicans (voters and senators).
- Thomas was a working adult who served as Hill’s boss when he was said to have harassed her, while Ford says the incident with Kavanaugh took place while he was in high school.
- And the Kavanaugh incident allegedly happened while he was under the influence of alcohol. Whether Americans will view the situation differently because of that is not yet apparent.
- Finally, there’s the issue of race, which played a big role in how Americans viewed Hill’s testimony. (Hill and Thomas are both black.)
We can’t really know how Americans will weigh the various factors involved in Kavanaugh’s case just yet, or if ultimately they’ll default to party lines. But given how views on sexual misconduct have changed, it’s difficult to imagine the public responding to the allegations against Kavanaugh as they did to Hill — even if he’s eventually confirmed.