Words vs. Deeds: President George W. Bush and Polling

By Tenpas, Kathryn Dunn | Brookings Review, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Words vs. Deeds: President George W. Bush and Polling


Tenpas, Kathryn Dunn, Brookings Review


President George W. Bush pledged repeatedly throughout his presidential campaign that his administration would have no use for polls and focus groups: "I really don't care what polls and focus groups say. What I care about is doing what I think is right." Shackled by that promise, President Bush and his staff have shrouded his polling apparatus, minimizing the relevance of pons and denying their impact. But public records available from the Federal Election Commission, documents from presidential libraries, and interviews with key players paint a fairly clear picture of the Bush polling operation. The picture, which turns out to be a familiar one, calls into question the administration's purported "anti-polling" ethos and shows an administration closely in keeping with historical precedent.

President Bush in Historical Context

Every president since Richard Nixon has hired professional pollsters to take, periodically, the pulse of the electorate. Earlier presidents clearly had relationships with pollsters, who obligingly tacked questions onto their existing polls for the benefit of the administration. But polling was not under White House control. Nixon's use of pollsters marked a turning point in the history of presidential polling because it signaled the birth of White House-commissioned polls. No longer tethered to the timetables and agendas of pollsters like Lou Harris and George Gallup, presidents began to direct both the timing and the substance of their polls. Nor were polls limited to the campaign season; presidents and their staff could test the popularity of various programs and policy initiatives on their own schedule. Scholars, noting that the transfer of campaign tactics to governing was blurring the distinction between the two, began describing the result as the "permanent campaign."

Rapid advances in technology played a big part in the new ways presidents used polling. By the time Nixon took office, computers, though costly, had become sophisticated enough to process vast quantities of data. Not only were telephones ubiquitous enough to make their use in polling methodologically feasible, but the advent of random digit dialing increased the efficiency and validity of telephone polling. In short, the "science" of polling became more mature, enabling presidents not only to learn about their past performance but to gain "prospective" intelligence. Today, testing key phrases in a speech or catchphrases designed to sell a policy or program has become so commonplace that presidential speeches and public pronouncements endure many rounds of focus group testing before being judged ready for primetime. Innovative techniques like the mall intercept (interviewing shoppers at a mall storefront), tracking polls, overnight polling, dial meters, and focus groups are part of any professional pollster's repertoire. And new Internet focus groups are being used, by the Bush pollsters among others, as a more timely, less expensive way to conduct focus groups. Though still in its nascent stages, Internet polling is thought to be the next generation of survey research, significantly lowering costs while increasing the speed with which polls can be conducted.

The names of many past presidential pollsters are familiar, if not exactly household names. Robert Teeter did polling for Presidents Nixon, Ford, and George H.W. Bush; Patrick Caddell for President Carter; Richard Wirthlin for President Reagan; and Stanley Greenberg (1993-94) and Mark Penn (1995-2000) for President Clinton. Most began as pollsters for the campaign and were "promoted" to presidential pollsters, taking on a higher profile in the process. Indeed, the unprecedented visibility and perceived influence of Clinton's pollsters created much advance interest in President George W.. Bush's prospective pollsters. But Bush's determination to be the "anti-Clinton" and his repeated campaign promises to give polls and focus groups no role in his administration led him to relegate his pollsters to near anonymity. …

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