Policy Experts in Presidential Campaigns: A Model of Think Tank Recruitment

Article excerpt

Throughout the 1996 presidential campaign, candidates drew on the advice of academics, party members, former government officials, pollsters, consultants, business leaders, and union and interest group representatives. Moreover, as in previous campaigns, they also relied on scholars from policy research institutions or think tanks as they are commonly referred to, to help them identify, develop, and present policy ideas. Indeed, even a year before the 1996 presidential election, close ties had been established between several presidential candidates and a handful of think tanks.(1) Pat Buchanan's long-time association with the Illinois-based Rockford Institute,(2) Alan Keyes' personal and professional relationship with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and Bob Dole's(3) ongoing interaction with a number of Washington-based think tanks including, though by no means limited to, AEI and the Heritage Foundation, suggested at the very least, that a number of presidential candidates would be turning to think tanks for policy advice.

The purpose of this study, however, is not to identify those think tanks that captured the attention of presidential candidates during the 1996 campaign, nor is it to trace the career patterns of think tank scholars who served or are currently serving in the Clinton administration.(4) Rather, the purpose of this article is to explain why and under what conditions presidential candidates have, and will likely continue, to solicit actively the advice of think tanks.

This article argues that two characteristics of presidential candidates--their status as a Washington insider or outsider and the strength of their ideological views as approximated by voter election studies--can help to explain the recruitment patterns of think tanks by candidates. More specifically, this study explains why candidates are drawn to think tanks during presidential campaigns and why some candidates are attracted to advocacy rather than traditional policy research institutions for information and advice.(5) Our model is applied to the five presidential elections since 1976, the time period in which many advocacy think tanks rose to prominence. Of our ten case studies, our model explains the use of think tanks by eight presidential nominees.

This study contributes to the growing literature on think tanks and their role in American politics. Most of the research in this area has tended to be largely descriptive.(6) Other than providing an institutional profile of think tanks, few scholars have examined their behavior and impact in the political arena in a systematic fashion. This article seeks to move beyond the level of description to a more analytical focus on the relationship between think tanks and presidential candidates. Although the literature on interest group activity in American politics is well documented, think tanks and policy research institutions represent another form of policy influence requiring further examination. In addition, our theoretical framework allows for future comparative studies of candidates and think tanks in other countries.

In the first section of this study, a brief discussion of how and why think tanks have become firmly embedded in the policy-making process will be provided. Although the size of their budgets and the scope of their research programs vary considerably,(7) think tanks appear to be motivated by the same goal--to influence public opinion and public policy. The desire and capabilities of think tanks to provide policy advice to presidential candidates has increased dramatically in recent decades; however, candidates have not automatically taken advantage of this resource. While some presidential candidates have relied extensively on these institutions to help define and reinforce their policy platforms and administration goals, others have been less than enthusiastic about surrounding themselves with think tank scholars.(8) This uneven pattern of think tank recruitment by presidential candidates invites the following question: why do some candidates rely on think tanks more than others? …