Source Material: Presidents and Polling: Politicians, Pandering, and the Study of Democratic Responsiveness

Article excerpt

In our recent book, Politicians Don't Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000), we assert that there has been a decline in democratic responsiveness at the very top of American national govemment. The book raises a host of questions about present-day American politics and about presidential behavior in particular, specifically concerning the causal effect (or lack thereof) of public opinion on the policy-making process. Addressing methodological and substantive issues in studying causal relationships, we review what is known about the relationship between public opinion and presidential policy making. While American presidents have paid increasing attention to public opinion with the institutionalization of polling and public opinion analysis in the White House, it should by no means be presumed that policy making has become more responsive to public opinion. Recent political developments have provided presidents and both parties in Congress increasing incentives and opportunity to attempt to lead or manipulate public opinion. Evidence from the Clinton years described in Politicians Don't Pander most strikingly demonstrates this. We are only now beginning to learn about the relationship between presidents and the polling and public opinion analysis that has gone on in presidential administrations since the 1960s. Our working hypothesis is that the Reagan years are pivotal in understanding recent and future developments regarding the relationship between public opinion and presidential behavior.

Politicians Don't Pander: The Contemporary Puzzle

We begin with a contemporary puzzle: public opinion polls are everywhere. The media report them without stop, and political activists of all kinds--from candidates in election contests to political parties and interest groups--pump millions of dollars into focus groups and polls. The flood of polls has fuelled the nearly unquestioned assumption among observers of American politics that elected officials "pander" to public opinion. Politicians, it is charged, tailor their significant policy decisions to polls and other indicators of public opinion.

That politicians succumb to public opinion has been accepted not only by the press and political elites but also by some scholars (Quirk and Hinchliffe 1998; Geer 1996). Although research (including our own) over the years has found substantial evidence of government responsiveness in the United States, perhaps the strongest recent claim that politicians incessantly follow public opinion comes from the work of Stimson, MacKuen, and Erikson (1994, 1995; see also Shapiro and Jacobs 1989, 1999; Jacobs and Shapiro 1994b). They tracked government decisions on domestic policies since the 1950s (e.g., legislation enacted by Congress) and constructed global measures of liberalism and conservatism for each year. The researchers then asked the following: did changes in government policy in a liberal or conservative direction correspond to changes in public support for more or less government? Stimson, MacKuen, and Erikson (1995) report that government policy followed public opinion as it moved in a liberal direction in the 1960s, in a conservative direction around 1980, and then back toward a liberal course in the late 1980s. They concluded that politicians behave "like antelopes in an open field" (p. 559): "When politicians perceive public opinion change, they adapt their behavior to please their constituency" (p. 545).

While Stimson, MacKuen, and Erikson (1994, 1995) offer a compelling account, their reliance on global measures has missed the widening gulf between the specific policy decisions of politicians and the preferences of the American people toward individual issues. Recent American politics sports a long list of policies that failed to mirror public opinion: the impeachment of Clinton, campaign finance reform, tobacco legislation, Clinton's proposals in his first budget for an energy levy and a high tax on Social Security benefits (despite his campaign promises to cut middle-class taxes), the North American Free Trade Agreement (at its onset), strict gun control, and congressional Republican proposals after the 1994 elections for a "revolution" in policies toward the environment, education, Medicare, and other issues. …


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