Polls? What polls?
George W. Bush has long been dismissive of public-opinion surveys
- never more so than when they show his approval rating to be
slumping, as they have in recent weeks.
"I don't even know what polls you're talking about, nor do I
care," he told a reporter on his way back from the Florida
Everglades last week.
But the president - and his political advisers - are not as
nonchalant about polls as his words would imply. While polling in
the Bush White House pales in comparison with the survey-obsessed
Clinton administration, the Bush team is quietly working behind the
scenes to tap into Americans' sentiments - and to hash out just how
they will use the information they glean.
"This is clearly a very political White House," says Marshall
Wittmann, a political analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute.
"The reason why you see the president in green backdrops and
environmentally correct locations is that polls show vulnerability
on the environmental issue."
That's not to say Mr. Bush is letting opinion polls drive his
policies - as Mr. Clinton eventually did. Bush persisted in pushing
for a large tax cut, despite the public's so-so desire for one. He
did not poll-test his controversial energy plan before its
Governing by policy, not polls
Indeed, the president has indicated that, in his eyes, basing
policy on polls is a sellout of leadership. He may use survey
results to refine his message, but changing course would be far
worse than sticking to an agenda with poor ratings.
"The American people want them [the administration] to push the
policies they ran on, even if they don't necessarily agree with
them," says Matthew Dowd of the Republican National Committee, who
coordinates with the White House on poll questions. "The thing they
dislike more is when they think [candidates] have run on certain
things and then blow it off."
Still, the White House does review polls - every week. Karl Rove,
Bush's key political adviser, goes over the latest surveys with a
dozen senior aides jokingly referred to as the "strategery group" -
a reference to Bush's frequent malapropisms. At the table are
heavyweights such as the chief of staff and the national security
adviser, and the counselor to the vice president.
Mr. Dowd, who was the pollster for the Bush campaign and who
still serves that role at the RNC, puts the use of polls in this
administration as somewhere between George Bush Sr., who polled on
an ad hoc basis, and Clinton, who polled often and on everything.
Bush "is obviously a person who's political enough to run for
governor and run for president, so he knows the benefit of polling
data," says Dowd, who commutes between Washington and Austin. "But
he also has a skepticism about polls driving public policy. You
decide your principles first, and then use polling to figure out
the best way to communicate them."
The poll that the president said he knew nothing about was a
Washington Post/ABC News survey last week that ran on Page 1.
It showed a steep, eight-point drop in the president's job-
approval rating in five weeks; a precipitous increase in his
negative ratings on the environment and energy; and a strong
majority - 68 percent - who want Bush to "mainly compromise" with
Democrats in Congress instead of "mainly push" his own agenda. …