How the White House uses (gasp!) polls

Bush likes to deride opinion surveys. But that doesn't mean advisers ignore them.

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 unveiling.

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.

Additionally, a Field poll has shown him to be out of step with Californians, 70 percent of whom support price caps on electricity. The president adamantly opposes caps.

Dowd and other GOP pollsters don't put much stock in the job-approval drop, saying it comes off high ratings from the handling of the US spy plane in China - a unique event - and reflects the blame a chief executive always gets when consumers worry generally about the economy or a crisis like energy.

"I only get concerned when I see a pattern going on over a longer period of time," says Dowd. However, he admits, "I'm concerned about energy as an issue that's dominating, and contributing to an increase" in the number of poll respondents who say they believe the country is on the "wrong track."

Yet Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to Mr. Clinton, says, "any time you have an eight- to 10-point drop in any area, it's worth paying attention to," he says.

So what would his boss, the ultimate poll junkie, have done with numbers like these?

"The first thing is, he wouldn't have waited for someone to call him. He would have been the first one to see the results," says Mr. Panetta. "He would have been the first one to be yelling at an aide about what needs to be done to counter it."

On the other hand, Panetta admits, Clinton was over the top when it came to polling. He polled on his vacation destination. He tested phrases in surveys. He polled on whether the country could accept his affair with a White House intern, according to Dick Morris, Clinton's former pollster.

Mr. Morris essentially became a shadow chief of staff, wielding enormous power and helping to persuade the former president to pursue a centrist strategy with Congress that became known as "triangulation" (which, in the end, resulted in some of his end, resulted in some of his most significant legislative achievements).

Certainly, this White House does not come close to reviving the polling culture of the Clinton years. While one of Clinton's pollsters, Mark Penn, met regularly with the domestic policy adviser, for instance, Bush's domestic adviser has no direct dealings with any pollsters.

But Clinton's fondness for polls is at least partly why his successor shies away from them. "Adverse reaction to the excessive polling of the last eight years," he says, is one reason the president reminds Americans he doesn't care about polls.

Less eager to please

John Zogby, an independent pollster, sees a more subtle factor at work. "Clinton was the pre-eminent pleaser, and therefore used polls for constant, daily validation. Bush, with the sliver spoon, has lots of love from mom and dad, and doesn't necessarily have to please."

Still others point out that Bush learned from the one-term presidency of his father, who was lulled into a false sense of security by high approval ratings.

While administration officials insist they will not change their agenda due to public reaction, Mr. Zogby says this could get them in trouble. "If he ignores polls, he risks losing the middle."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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