How the White House Uses (Gasp!) Polls ; Bush Likes to Deride Opinion Surveys. but That Doesn't Mean Advisers Ignore Them

Article excerpt

Polls? What polls?

George W. Bush has long been dismissive of public-opinion surveys - never more so than when they show his approval rating to be slumping, as they have in recent weeks.

"I don't even know what polls you're talking about, nor do I care," he told a reporter on his way back from the Florida Everglades last week.

But the president - and his political advisers - are not as nonchalant about polls as his words would imply. While polling in the Bush White House pales in comparison with the survey-obsessed Clinton administration, the Bush team is quietly working behind the scenes to tap into Americans' sentiments - and to hash out just how they will use the information they glean.

"This is clearly a very political White House," says Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute. "The reason why you see the president in green backdrops and environmentally correct locations is that polls show vulnerability on the environmental issue."

That's not to say Mr. Bush is letting opinion polls drive his policies - as Mr. Clinton eventually did. Bush persisted in pushing for a large tax cut, despite the public's so-so desire for one. He did not poll-test his controversial energy plan before its unveiling.

Governing by policy, not polls

Indeed, the president has indicated that, in his eyes, basing policy on polls is a sellout of leadership. He may use survey results to refine his message, but changing course would be far worse than sticking to an agenda with poor ratings.

"The American people want them [the administration] to push the policies they ran on, even if they don't necessarily agree with them," says Matthew Dowd of the Republican National Committee, who coordinates with the White House on poll questions. "The thing they dislike more is when they think [candidates] have run on certain things and then blow it off."

Still, the White House does review polls - every week. Karl Rove, Bush's key political adviser, goes over the latest surveys with a dozen senior aides jokingly referred to as the "strategery group" - a reference to Bush's frequent malapropisms. At the table are heavyweights such as the chief of staff and the national security adviser, and the counselor to the vice president.

Mr. Dowd, who was the pollster for the Bush campaign and who still serves that role at the RNC, puts the use of polls in this administration as somewhere between George Bush Sr., who polled on an ad hoc basis, and Clinton, who polled often and on everything.

Bush "is obviously a person who's political enough to run for governor and run for president, so he knows the benefit of polling data," says Dowd, who commutes between Washington and Austin. "But he also has a skepticism about polls driving public policy. You decide your principles first, and then use polling to figure out the best way to communicate them."

The poll that the president said he knew nothing about was a Washington Post/ABC News survey last week that ran on Page 1.

It showed a steep, eight-point drop in the president's job- approval rating in five weeks; a precipitous increase in his negative ratings on the environment and energy; and a strong majority - 68 percent - who want Bush to "mainly compromise" with Democrats in Congress instead of "mainly push" his own agenda. …