If the News Is So Bad, Why Are Presidential Polls So High? Presidents, the News Media, and the Mass Public in an Era of New Media

Article excerpt

By almost any standard, 1998 was a horrible year for any president. Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky became public, leading to his impeachment. The Republican-controlled Congress heartily attacked him, and the news media, never easy on the administration (Kurtz 1998), escalated the degree to which it challenged and criticized the president. Figure 1 traces the percentage of news stories about the president and the administration from 1981 that were coded clearly negative or more negative than positive. (1) As the figure demonstrates, 1998 stood out in the degree of negative news reports. Only 1987, the year of the Iran-Contra scandal, produced a higher percentage of negative news stories on the president. (2) Even 1994, the year of Clinton's ill-fated health care initiative, itself a bad press year for Clinton at 58 percent, is still less negative than 1998 by nearly 10 percent. Not surprisingly, nearly 22 percent of all news stories in 1998 about the president and administration focused on the scandal and nearly all of those stories were negative. Without the scandal stories, only 47 percent of the news stories about Clinton would have been negative, which is similar to the amount of negative news that he received in any given year.

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What is so remarkable about these figures is not that Clinton received so much bad press, but that his job approval polls rose that year. (3) Fifty-six percent of those polled in the last Gallup poll of 1997 approved of the job that Clinton was doing. By the end of July 1998, his job approval rating had risen to 65 percent. It remained at about that level throughout the remainder of the year, before spiking upward in very late 1998 and early 1999, reaching a peak of 73 percent in Gallup's poll of December 19-20, 1998.

That Clinton's polls did not plummet in the face of such bad press challenges many widely held assumptions about the role of news in shaping opinions. Brody's (1991) seminal book argues that the balance of positive and negative news about the president will affect public attitudes toward the president. When the news leans in a negative direction, presidential approval should drop (also Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson 2002). Brody's perspective suggests that Clinton's approval should have declined in 1998, yet it rose! Our existing theories and understandings of the relationship among the news, the presidency, and public opinion cannot explain why Bill Clinton's approval rose in 1998.

Nor do our exiting theories explain the general decoupling of news from presidential approval. Figure 2 plots data on the annual tone of presidential news and Gallup approval from 1949 through 1992 (Ragsdale 1997). The two series diverge, as expected, until about the mid-1970s, and then begin to track together. Regression analysis reveals that the two series are negatively related (b = -.40; se = .16; t = 2.52; p = .02). However, if we bisect the series into subsets (1949-1976 and 1977-1992), we find the expected negative relationship for the 1949-1976 segment (b = -.68; p = .000) but no relationship for the 1977-1992 segment (b = .31; p = .28). In fact, if we drop 1987, the year of Iran-Contra, from the 1977-1992 segment, we find a strong positive relationship between negative news and presidential popularity (b = .90; p = .000)! In other words, bad news leads to higher presidential polls, barring major negative events, like Iran-Contra. I do not want to make such a claim, but obviously, our traditional understanding of the relationship between news and public regard for the president needs rethinking.

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The presidential news subsystem, the set of interrelationships among the president, the news media, and the public, underwent a major transformation over the past 20 to 25 years. In this article, I identify the major aspects of this transformation and discuss the implications of this transformation for politics and presidential leadership in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. …