Committee Of Correspondence

Are Polls Polluting Politics?

Howard Kurtz
8:47 a.m.  Thursday  9/26/96 

       This just in: “Dole closes gap to 13 points”–USA Today.
       Fred suggests that Bob Dole is bravely ignoring the polls and sticking to his principles rather than moving toward the center. Why, then, has Dole done a 180 on the assault weapon ban? Why does he almost never talk about opposing abortion? And Fred knows as well as anyone that this whole Dole push on drugs, a subject he’s never shown much interest in, is driven by focus-group research. In this regard, he’s no different than Clinton, whose hundreds of itty bitty proposals (more time off for PTA meetings, etc.) have been extensively market-tested.
       But it’s worth noting, before we sink into a pool of cynicism about politicians who won’t go to the bathroom without checking the numbers, that occasionally public officials defy the polls. If Clinton had slavishly followed the polls, for example, he never would have sent troops to Haiti, or to Bosnia. Nor would he have bailed out the Mexican economy with controversial loans that have now been largely repaid. (Dole, too, defied the polls and broke with his right wing in backing the president on Bosnia and Mexico.)
       Still, I think polls have led us into our current morass of gridlock and frustration. As the moderator suggests, we elect people who vow to balance the budget (as the polls dictate) but refuse to cut popular programs (as the polls dictate) or get demogogued to death by those opposing the cuts (as the polls dictate). Then pollsters go out and take new surveys and discover–voila–that people think politicians are scum who don’t keep their promises. Some day half the American public is going to refuse to talk to the pollsters–or, better yet, consign them to voice-mail hell–and we will have to scrounge around for some new way of divining the public will. Eleanor Clift
9:41 a.m.  Thursday  9/26/96 

       Fred is right–budget-balancing is GOP dogma. Republicans did not have to take a poll to know that voters want a balanced budget. But at what cost. Here’s where Arianna hones in on the crux of the matter. To keep their promise, House Republicans couldn’t just tinker around with welfare reform (which does not produce big savings). They had to go where the real money is, and that meant cutting–oops, slowing the growth of–Medicare. Voters, particularly female voters, could see through all that fancy talk about “preserving and protecting” Medicare. As Arianna so eloquently puts it, “Numbers drove the decision … not lives.”
       The misplaced priorities of the Republican-controlled Congress produced a huge gender gap, 25 points in some polls. That is why Bob Dole is stressing the fact that teen-age drug use went up on Bill Clinton’s watch. It’s about the only policy straw he can seize on to get the attention of suburban mothers worried about their adolescent children, and to try to shave points off that gender gap. “If we can get it down to ten, we can win big,” a Dole aide told me. Dream on! Arianna Huffington
4:02 p.m.  Thursday  9/26/96 

       Our moderator is absolutely right about our long-term national interests–as well as polls–pointing to the need to balance the budget. But does anyone really believe that a balanced budget on paper, with all the tough decisions safely put off until the next millennium, would really come to pass? As a few pundits, Jodie Allen among them, pointed out at the time, Congress is elected every two years and cannot bind future Congresses, so there is no control over what would happen in seven years.
       The most interesting poll about the gender gap was the Kaiser Foundation/Washington Post/Harvard Poll in December 1995 that showed that women, in contrast to men, are less concerned with their own financial standing than they are with the economic prospects for their children and their neighbors–and, in particular, those most in need in our society. The verbatims from the survey are particularly revealing: “Don’t tell me how good things are,” says Jean Stephens. “I’ll know the economy’s improved when I see the elderly being taken care of and the homeless are not freezing on the street,” continued this grandmother from Trenton, N.J.
       While women and many men, too, equate compassion with government action, politicians will be able to demagogue any attempt to reform entitlements as mean-spirited. What no poll will tell us is that a balanced budget will remain something everybody considers a good thing and no one achieves until there is a new consensus about what will replace the Great Society. That debate involves a new definition of citizenship and an emphasis on rebuilding communities and strengthening the institutions of civil society. And that debate has barely begun in earnest. So far, pollsters have shown little interest in asking the questions that will link community solutions all around America with the policy debate. Herb Stein
4:14 p.m.  Thursday  9/26/96 

       The panelists all seem to agree, although with different intensities, that there is something wrong with the political process and that polls have something to do with that. They have different views of the connection between the polls and the deficiencies of the political process. Is it the very existence of polls that causes the trouble, is it the misinterpretation of polls by the media, the politicians and the public, or is it the excessive concentration on polls, to the exclusion of other information? So, what is to be done? Even Kurtz, who seems to be the most offended by polls, does not think that they could be outlawed without violating the First Amendment. Should Sen. Dole call upon the pollsters to “Just Don’t Do It!” Is there a possibility that we will outgrow the obsession with polls, as history reveals their limitations? What do the panelists think should be done?
       I don’t want to convert this into a discussion of budget policy, but I think that Huffington, Barnes and Clift ignore two points:
       Because of the frightening fiscal outlook for the next generation there are strong reasons, totally aside from the polls, to be committed to at least balancing the budget.
       Although restraint of Medicare is certainly needed for long-run economic growth and stability, the amount and timing of that restraint needed is affected by the commitment to tax reduction, which was not handed down from Mount Sinai. Fred Barnes
4:31 p.m.  Thursday  9/26/96 

       I don’t want to belabor the question of Medicare, but if numbers drove the decision of Republicans to, yes, slow the growth of Medicare, it was budget numbers, not poll numbers.
       OK, enough of that. Let’s turn to the notion of Bill Clinton, the brave president who goes against the polls, as Howard says and Eleanor suggests. This is ludicrous. Clinton is the most poll-driven politician America has ever seen, down to individual words and phrases that appear in his speeches.
       Clinton has no agenda of his own. Instead, he’s got popular Republican programs that he’s for (balanced budget, welfare reform, Megan’s Law, tax credit for adoption) and unpopular programs that he’s against (Medicare savings, cuts in federal education spending, curbs on environmental regulators). That’s the whole of it. The rest is eyewash. The only time Clinton goes against the polls is when there’s a Democratic interest group who must be served. He vetoed tort reform because the trial lawyers required that. He vetoed the ban on partial birth abortion because feminists mandated that.
       Bosnia? Remember Clinton balked for the longest time at doing anything. Then, when it became clear that he had more to lose by continuing to do nothing than by acting, he acted. His decision was correct, only belated.