How Pols and Their Polls Go So Wrong About Us

Is government responsive to the public's wishes? Most Americans clearly think not, and most Americans are dead wrong.

Political leaders have never tried harder to conform to public opinion than they do today. This gap between public opinion and political action exists not because political leaders are insensitive to the public's wishes, but because they misread public opinion and then push for policy changes based on these errant views. Ironically, therefore, elected leaders may appear the most insensitive precisely when they are trying hardest to give the public what they think it wants.

Two-thirds of the public believe political leaders do not care much what people like those surveyed think. More than half believe they don't have any say about what the government does, and 82 percent think that the country would be better off if political leaders heeded public opinion more carefully.

But public opinion does matter, and now more than ever. Political scientists have long examined how public opinion influences policy, and almost without exception conclude that elected leaders reflect the views of those they represent. My own research, which analyzes the relationship between public preferences and legislation over the last decade, also finds a strong connection across a wide range of issues. And, in part because of better access to opinion data, legislators appear more responsive to the public than ever before.

The Republican embrace of the Contract with America in 1994 and then quick renunciation of certain parts of it in 1995 provide a vivid example of both the growing importance of public opinion to today's leaders and how poorly it is sometimes understood.

In 1994, House (and, to a lesser extent, Senate) Republicans sought to scale back environmental regulations, one of the 10 points in the contract. They were named "the worst environmental Congress in two decades." Barely a year later, many of the same legislators censured this position just as vigorously.

In March 1996, Speaker Newt Gingrich, formerly called "the next environmental threat," remarked: "The Republican Party's view should be that we want to have the healthiest, safest, cleanest environment we can." He was soon branded a "closet environmentalist" by property-rights groups. In both cases, legislators believed they acted on the will of the people.

Before the 1994 election, pollster Frank Luntz assured the GOP leadership that the contract had the strong backing of the public. At least on environmental issues, he was just flat wrong. As the legislators recognized Mr. Luntz's error, they abandoned their plans to reduce environmental regulation and tried to reposition themselves in a way that was truly responsive to public opinion. Luntz now concedes his methods were flawed, but there may be more to it.

Survey data reveal that, if a respondent believes the political leadership is addressing an issue, his or her concern and support for government action in this area fall. This trend showed up in polls on environmental issues after President Clinton took office (with environmentalist Al Gore by his side). Public support for environmental spending fell because Americans believed the environment to be under a watchful eye. House Republicans saw this as a shift in public priorities away from environmental protection, partially because they wanted to see such a shift but also because the poll results could be interpreted this way.

In short, political leaders respond to changes in public opinion, but public opinion also responds to changes in political leadership. This isn't the first time that declining public support for environmental programs after a period of activism was misunderstood as public disenchantment with this activism. Early in the 1980s the Reagan administration made this mistake when it interpreted Reagan's strong victory as a mandate for regulatory reform. Reagan was forced to reverse course by 1983.

Similarly, in 1995, House Republicans realized, if belatedly, the importance of placing public opinion in context. Their rejection of unpopular elements of the contract, once they realized which they were, helps explain the GOP's success this year in holding onto majorities when many predicted it would not.

By misreading public opinion, political leaders contribute to public alienation from and mistrust of them. If they and their advisers will simply pay more attention to the political context when they interpret opinion data, they can prevent many of these blunders that at the same time inflame citizens' distrust of government and damp the public voice.

*Amy Richardson is a doctoral candidate at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University.

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