Another Lesson about Public Opinion during the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal. (Articles)

By Bennett, Stephen Earl | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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Another Lesson about Public Opinion during the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal. (Articles)

Bennett, Stephen Earl, Presidential Studies Quarterly

From January 21, 1998--when the Washington Post reported Bill Clinton may have had a sexual relationship with a young woman and lied about it under oath--through February 12, 1999--when the Senate voted not to convict him of impeachment charges--public opinion bemused commentators. Widespread approval of Clinton's job performance covaried with belief he had lied about the affair, distaste for Kenneth Starr's investigation, opposition to ousting Clinton from office, and dislike of how the media covered the scandal.

Since public opinion is considered crucial to the scandal's denouement (Albert 1999; Cooper 1999; Hauck 1999; Pious 1999-2000; Posner 1999), (1) we need to understand reactions to it. Although scholars have learned much about public opinion during the scandal, more can be gleaned. In particular, how much attention did the public pay to the scandal, and how did that affect people's awareness of and attitudes about key figures? Most previous scholarship passed over this topic. The data come from polls conducted on behalf of the Times Mirror/Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in May 1993,June 1995, September 1997, between late January 1998 and February 1999, April-May 2000, and June 2000, as well as from the 1980-2000 National Election Studies. (2)

Public Opinion during the Lewinsky Scandal

Several researchers have studied public opinion about the Lewinsky scandal: Richard Brody (1998; see also Brody and Jackman 1999), Molly Andolina and Clyde Wilcox (2000; see also Sonner and Wilcox 1999), Mark Fischle (2000), Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Sean Aday (1998), Scott Keeter (1999), Everett Carll Ladd (1998a, 1998b), Regina Lawrence and W. L. Bennett (2001), Seymour Martin Lipset and Karlyn Bowman (2000), Arthur Miller (1999), David Moore (1998), Frank Newport (1999a, 1999b, 1999d; see also Newport and Gallup 1999), and John Zaller (1998). One also sees comments by George Edwards (2000), Gary Jacobson (1999), Diana Owen and Jack Dennis (1999), Mark Rozell and C. Wilcox (2000), Virginia Sapiro and David Canon (2000), and Stephen Wayne (1998, 2000).

Students of public opinion were often puzzled by why Clinton's approval ratings, after an early dip, remained high throughout the scandal and why a majority of the public opposed removing him from office. Many researchers assumed public reaction to the scandal reflected "sophistication." Brody (1998) argued, for example, that although many people wished Clinton were a better person, they were satisfied with "his effectiveness, skill, understanding, compassion, and success as a political leader."

Mostly overlooked has been how much attention people paid to the news about the Clinton-Lewinsky imbroglio. Brody (1998; Brody and Jackman 1999) and Keeter (1999) are exceptions. They believed the public was well aware of the scandal. Brody and Jackman (1999) wrote, for example, that Gallup polls showed roughly 80 percent of the public were following the story either "very" or "somewhat" closely. Keeter concluded that "the public [was] fully engaged and attentive to the detail of the matter."

There are grounds, however, for doubting that the American public was fully attentive to the Clinton-Lewinsky matter. Polls conducted for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press do not show an overwhelmingly attentive public.

Attention to the Scandal, 1998-99

An important facet of public opinion during the scandal, one that has been largely overlooked, is how much attention people paid to the Clinton-Lewinsky imbroglio. If sizable portions of the public are "tuned out" of a phenomenon, one is hard-pressed to argue that reaction to it is sophisticated. To be sophisticated about a topic, one has to be knowledgeable about it (Luskin 1987). To be knowledgeable, one must be attentive to news about a topic (Chaffee and Frank 1996; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996; Weaver 1996).

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