Did DeLay underestimate the intelligence of the voters?

An overwhelming majority thinks that Congress should butt out.

In private, I’ve been apologizing for the Democrats’ largely passive response to the Schiavo foofaraw on the grounds that, with the public face of the issue being a mother pleading for the life of her child, bucking the trend would have been politically disastrous. (And the pictures of Terri Schiavo apparently smiling make it worse, unless reporters explain — as they rarely do — that what looks like a smile can be a reflex independent of any emotion.)

But the polling doesn’t seem to bear that out. [Oooops. Not so fast. See “Second Update” below.] Here’s ABC News’s account:

Americans broadly and strongly disapprove of federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, with sizable majorities saying Congress is overstepping its bounds for political gain.

The public, by 63-28 percent, supports the removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube, and by a 25-point margin opposes a law mandating federal review of her case.

By a lopsided 67-19 percent most think the elected officials trying to keep Schiavo alive are doing so more for political advantage than out of concern for her or for the principles involved.

Views on this issue are informed more by ideological and religious views than by political partisanship. Republicans overall look much like Democrats and independents in their opinions. But two core Republican groups — conservatives and evangelical Protestants — are more divided: Fifty-four percent of conservatives support removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube, compared with seven in 10 moderates and liberals. And evangelical Protestants divide about evenly — 46 percent are in favor of removing the tube, 44 percent opposed. Among non-evangelical Protestants, 77 percent are in favor — a huge division between evangelical and mainline Protestants.

If the issue isn’t even a winner among the evangelicals, then the cost of being on the other side can’t really be that high, and the Democrats would be better advise to pander to the religious right on some issue that its voters, as opposed to its leaders, actually care about.

Update Norm Scheiber of TNR’s &c offers a delightful thought: the effect of the Schiavo campaign may be to familiarize tens of millions of marginal news-followers with DeLay’s ethics problems.

Second update Never mind. Orin Kerr reports that the poll results were largely determined by the questions, which provided (in my view accurate) context that the news shows have relentlessly refused to provide: e.g., that Schiavo’s higher brain functions are gone and aren’t coming back. So the poll shows how the country would view the case if it had the facts, while in actuality it mostly doesn’t.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com