In his campaign, Bush pledged not to govern based on polls. He said he was going to govern on principle, not on the findings of public opinion polls and focus groups. The promise was a barb at Bill Clinton, who polled more than any president in history, both to define his agenda and to shape his message. Cynics used to suggest, only half jokingly, that Clinton’s position on any issue was whatever 60 percent of Americans believed. His pollsters explored what vacation spot and which family pet would garner the most support by voters.
Pollsters are not popular. They call people at mealtimes and, if they manage to get anyone to stay on the phone, ask probing questions. Citizens cynically (and correctly) suspect that politicians constantly use polls to spin issues. As columnist Joshua Green concluded, “One of the most dependable poll results is that people don’t like polling.”
Bush’s promise to back away from polling was indeed a clever strategy—people don’t like them—and a central part of his message—I’ll do what’s right. He sensed that people wanted leadership, and that they would not take kindly to a new president who tried to lead by the numbers.
A Washington Monthly survey of the administration’s polling operations found that Team Bush, in fact, relied heavily on polling. However, they did not rely on them as heavily as the Clinton administration, and they relied on them for different purposes. During the first year, the survey found that Bush pollsters spent about $1 million, about half what Clinton’s pollsters spent. Clinton used polls to position himself on the issues the public was most likely to support. By contrast, Bush set his strategy and then used polls to determine how best to sell his positions. As political scientist Lawrence R. Jacobs explained, “there’s a lot more polling on spin,” on how best to present the message that the president has already chosen.
For example, in February 2002 the Bush administration launched its effort to privatize social security. The president’s speech focused on “retirement security,” not “social security.” He repeatedly used words like “choice,” “compound interest,” “opportunity,” and “savings.” The phrases had tested well in polls and focus groups, and the president’s speechwriters used them to craft a message in the way most likely to sell. Moreover, Bush personally paid less attention to the polls than did Clinton. Bill Clinton consumed polls and could not get enough of them. He read them and dug deeply into the results. Bush, in contrast, delegated the job to his political operation, led by Karl Rove, who was charged with summarizing and digesting the findings. Poll results rarely surface in meetings with the president or senior aides. The political staff keeps tight rein on the process and its results, and the president’s pollsters guard the fact that they work for him.
Analysts have debated both sides of Bush’s shift in polling strategy. Bush allies argue that it is more honest—and fundamentally more genuine—to decide policy separately from polling, but to use polls to determine how best to talk to Americans about the decision.
As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd pointed out, Bush critics argue that it was more cynical to use “the black arts of the Bush polling operation” to spin stories.
Critics also contend that the Clinton polling operation was more democratic since it sought to find out what Americans wanted and believed, and then tried to accomplish it. Bush allies counter that it’s the president’s job to lead by making the tough decisions, based on the best analysis, and not to set policy adrift on a sea of public opinion.
The argument reflects polar opposite views on the role of leadership. The debate skirts the fact that the Bush polling operation has served the president’s agenda and his management style well. Its low-key nature, moreover, has helped erase the finger-in-the-wind tone that always dogged Clinton’s decisions. That supported Bush’s management style as well.
Team Bush has almost always known what it wanted to accomplish. It projected that message firmly and consistently, with remarkably little wobbling. There has been little ambiguity that might have given opponents the ammunition it needed to push the administration off message, or that might have allowed reporters room to write a different story than the one the administration intended. Not only has the Bush administration proved remarkably adept at focusing its strategy and framing a message to explain it but the team has also been relentless in emphasizing and reemphasizing that message, in a clear and consistent way, which has kept the spotlight on the president’s agenda.