The Battle for Public Opinion: The President, the Press, and the Polls during Watergate

By Gladys Engel Lang; Kurt Lang | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
THE BATTLE OF THE POLLS
October 1973-May 1974

"During much of the last nine months of his presidency, Nixon was engaged in a losing battle for public opinion over Watergate" (Congressional Quarterly). 1

"As I increasingly saw it . . . the main danger of being impeached would come precisely from the public's being conditioned to the idea that I was going to be impeached" ( Richard M. Nixon). 2

"There is no doubt in my mind that our polls on impeachment of Richard Nixon had a profound effect. I know they did" ( Louis Harris). 3

"Contrary to the conventional wisdom, public opinion polls did not hasten the resignation of Richard Nixon; rather they delayed it. Had it not been for other events, the polls might have kept him in office" ( Michael Wheeler). 4

Few people in the wake of Watergate doubted that the precipitous decline in Nixon's popularity, as judged by the polls, played a part in his decision to resign. Nixon himself believed that public opinion was the critical factor in the "overriding" of his landslide mandate. Especially from October 1973 on, the President saw himself in a "race for public support engaged in a last campaign," only this time it was not for political office but for his political life." He believed that the "politics of the situation" would determine the outcome, whatever the substantive basis of any impeachment charges. 5 Congressional Democrats, he reasoned, would be constantly taking the political temperature to determine whether they stood a better chance in the 1974 Congressional elections and in the 1976 Presidential campaign with Nixon out of office. Impeachment, for Nixon, was a "strictly political question"; much as some Republicans might also want to be rid of him, they would have to recognize that others would be outraged by the very idea. The public at large might even consider their efforts toward impeachment as "self-interested and disloyal." 6

In line with this reasoning, Nixon's media strategy was designed to win the battle of the polls even when he publicly insisted that a President cannot

-94-

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