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Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents

By Paul Brace; Barbara Hinckley | Go to book overview

8
A Guide to Presidents
and the Polls

THERE is a new voice of the people in American politics. It sings a continuous and beguiling tune with great range and variety. We hear it clearly but do not know what it says or what it means. Although the polls have not supplanted elections as the democratic base for a president's actions in office, at times they can supersede them. They withdraw support from winners of landslide elections, discourage some presidents from running for reelection and encourage others, and affect White House actions and the legislative agenda. Given their importance, it is surprising how cavalierly we treat them and how little we ask about what they actually mean.

Since the time of the Truman administration, a nationwide sample of Americans have been asked on a regular basis if they approve or disapprove of the job President is doing. This question is used in the various network polls and forms the basis for most of the news stories about a president's public support. Many people do not evaluate the president's job performance, however. They respond to the president as a person or, linking two patriotic symbols, say how the nation is doing. Merely dividing events into those that dramatize either the nation's conflict and problems or its unity in the face of external threats allows us to explain a great deal of the fluctuations in the

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