Despite ample evidence that polling data play a big part in Bush administration political strategy and messaging, Charles Krauthammer claimed that President Bush "is probably the least poll-driven president in history."
On the December 2 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer claimed that President Bush "is probably the least poll-driven president in history." This characterization of Bush has been repeatedly put forth by administration supporters -- and the president himself -- ever since his 2000 presidential campaign. But while Bush has gone to great lengths to create the impression that he doesn't rely on polling, there is ample evidence that polling data play a substantial part in his administration's political strategy and messaging.
During the 2000 campaign, Bush often emphasized his purported lack of interest in studies of public opinion. "I really don't care what the polls and focus groups say," he said prior to the second presidential debate. "What I care about is doing what I think is right" [CBS' The Early Show, 10/11/00]. Following his election, Bush's aides and supporters continued to highlight what they claimed was a clear distinction between Bush and President Clinton, whose reliance on polling data was well documented. In a speech shortly after Bush's inauguration, Vice President Dick Cheney stated: "The days of the war room and the permanent campaign are over. This president and this administration are going to change the tone in the city of Washington."
Several months later, however, White House officials' repeated use of certain catchphrases in public statements on the administration's national energy policy caught the attention of Time magazine reporters James Carney and John F. Dickerson. In a May 18, 2001, article, they identified certain frequently occurring words (such as "balanced," "comprehensive," "leadership," and "modern") in the "White House's quiver of talking points." Carney and Dickerson went on to report:
Forgive us for being cynical, but years of training -- plus the "find" feature on Microsoft Word -- led us to a startling hypothesis: the Bush White House had tested certain words, phrases and ideas in polls and focus groups before launching its national energy policy.
And, in fact, they have been. Jan van Lohuizen, a Washington pollster who worked for the Bush campaign and now polls for the Republican National Committee, has been testing feelings and reactions to the President's energy plan for weeks. It is true that this White House is less poll-driven than its predecessor, but the difference is getting harder and harder to see.
A July 4, 2001, USA Today article on the Bush administration's ongoing political operation delved deeper into the White House's polling operation:
Clinton's reliance on opinion polls was derided by Republicans who said he followed polls, not principles or conviction.
Bush says he doesn't care about polls, and he may not pay attention to those taken for the nation's newspapers and TV networks. But the White House does pay attention to polls and focus groups paid for by the RNC and conducted by Bush's former campaign pollster, Matthew Dowd.
Dowd says he doesn't test which policy positions the White House should adopt. Once Bush takes a position, though, Dowd tries to gauge how voters will respond. His results are used to help sell a plan like the tax cut or education program to the public by determining which points to emphasize. The polls also help aides predict which parts of a given proposal will be unpopular and prepare to answer critics.
"We pay attention to them," Card says of polls. "But we aren't driven by them."
American University's [James] Thurber says the administration's wide-ranging political efforts are among the most sophisticated he's seen -- and he says they are part of a necessary strategy for any White House.
"They're realists," he says of Bush and his aides. "They indeed criticized the Clinton administration for doing it, and now they're doing it in their own way. But that's normal. It's naive to think that they would do anything else."
More information about the Bush White House's use of public opinion data emerged in Joshua Green's April 2002 Washington Monthly article headlined "The Other War Room." Green examined the amount Bush had spent on polling during the first year of his presidency and described the Bush administration as "a frequent consumer of polls"; though he reported that the administration takes "extraordinary measures" to appear otherwise:
Republican National Committee filings show that Bush actually uses polls much more than he lets on, in ways both similar and dissimilar to Clinton. Like Clinton, Bush is most inclined to use polls when he's struggling. It's no coincidence that the administration did its heaviest polling last summer, after the poorly received rollout of its energy plan, and amid much talk of the "smallness" of the presidency. A Washington Monthly analysis of Republican National Committee disbursement filings revealed that Bush's principal pollsters received $346,000 in direct payments in 2001. Add to that the multiple boutique polling firms the administration regularly employs for specialized and targeted polls and the figure is closer to $1 million. That's about half the amount Clinton spent during his first year; but while Clinton used polling to craft popular policies, Bush uses polling to spin unpopular ones -- arguably a much more cynical undertaking.
Bush's principal pollster, Jan van Lohuizen, and his focus-group guru, Fred Steeper, are the best-kept secrets in Washington. Both are respected but low-key, proficient but tight-lipped, and, unlike such larger-than-life Clinton pollsters as Dick Morris and Mark Penn, happy to remain anonymous. They toil in the background, poll-testing the words and phrases the president uses to sell his policies to an often-skeptical public; they're the Bush administration's Cinderella. "In terms of the modern presidency," says Ron Faucheux, editor of Campaigns & Elections, "van Lohuizen is the lowest-profile pollster we've ever had."
Just as Carney and Dickerson had examined how polling data determined the presentation of Bush's energy plan, Green reported how Bush relied on pollsters in marketing his Social Security proposals:
On the last day of February , the Bush administration kicked off its renewed initiative to privatize Social Security in a speech before the National Summit on Retirement Savings in Washington, D.C. Rather than address "Social Security," Bush opted to speak about "retirement security." And during the brief speech he repeated the words "choice" (three times), "compound interest" (four times), "opportunity" (nine times) and "savings" (18 times). These words were not chosen lightly. The repetition was prompted by polls and focus groups. During the campaign, Steeper honed and refined Bush's message on Social Security (with key words such as "choice," "control," and "higher returns"), measuring it against Al Gore's attack through polls and focus groups ("Wall Street roulette," "bankruptcy" and "break the contract"). Steeper discovered that respondents preferred Bush's position by 50 percent to 38 percent, despite the conventional wisdom that tampering with Social Security is political suicide. He learned, as he explained to an academic conference last February, that "there's a great deal of cynicism about the federal government being able to do anything right, which translated to the federal government not having the ability to properly invest people's Social Security dollars." By couching Bush's rhetoric in poll-tested phrases that reinforced this notion, and adding others that stress the benefits of privatization, he was able to capitalize on what most observers had considered to be a significant political disadvantage. (Independent polls generally find that when fully apprised of Bush's plan, including the risks, most voters don't support it.)
This is typical of how the Bush administration uses polls: Policies are chosen beforehand, polls used to spin them. Because many of Bush's policies aren't necessarily popular with a majority of voters, Steeper and van Lohuizen's job essentially consists of finding words to sell them to the public.
In the Summer 2003 edition of The Brookings Review, Brookings Institution senior fellow Kathryn Dunn Tenpas further highlighted how, rather than avoid polling, the Bush White House has simply tried to hide its reliance on polls -- an effort aided by administration supporters, such as Krauthammer, who help foster the image of a White House unconcerned about gauges of public opinion:
In a way, Bush's approach to polling is the opposite of Clinton's. He uses polls but conceals that fact, and, instead of polling to ensure that new policies have broad public support, takes policies favored by his conservative base and polls on how to make them seem palatable to mainstream voters. This pattern extends to the entire administration. Whereas Clinton's polling data were regularly circulated among the staff, Bush limits his to the handful of senior advisers who attend Rove's "strategery meetings." According to White House aides, the subject is rarely broached with the president or at other senior staff meetings. "The circle is tight," Matthew Dowd, Bush's chief of polling, testifies. "Very tight." As with Kennedy and Nixon, the Bush administration keeps its polling data under lock and key.
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. Still, their low profile, particularly compared with that of Clinton's pollsters, has not kept them from performing essential polling for the White House.
Like Green and Thurber, Tenpas conceded that the Bush White House's reliance on public opinion is relatively standard from a historical perspective. What is "unusual," she went on to write, is the stark contrast between the administration's rhetoric and its actions on the issue:
President Bush's use of polling is by no means pathbreaking, nor is the amount of polling particularly astounding. What is unusual about the Bush team's polling operation is the chasm between its words and actions. Never before has a White House engaged in such anti-polling rhetoric or built up such a buffer between the pollsters and the president.
Krauthammer's characterization of Bush as "probably the least poll-driven president in history" came during a "Fox All-Star Panel" discussion of the president's recent efforts to shore up public support for the Iraq war. In this context, Krauthammer's comments are particularly misleading, as recent news reports have shown that the Bush administration has relied heavily on pollsters in devising its political strategy on Iraq. A June 30 Washington Post article, published two days after Bush gave a prime-time speech on the war, reported that the White House had hired "experts on public opinion during wartime" to aide in this effort:
When President Bush confidently predicts victory in Iraq and admits no mistakes, admirers see steely resolve and critics see exasperating stubbornness. But the president's full-speed-ahead message articulated in this week's prime-time address also reflects a purposeful strategy based on extensive study of public opinion about how to maintain support for a costly and problem-plagued military mission.
The White House recently brought onto its staff one of the nation's top academic experts on public opinion during wartime, whose studies are now helping Bush craft his message two years into a war with no easy end in sight. Behind the president's speech is a conviction among White House officials that the battle for public opinion on Iraq hinges on their success in convincing Americans that, whatever their views of going to war in the first place, the conflict there must and can be won.
One of the two experts cited by name in the Post article, Duke University professor Peter D. Feaver, was more recently reported to have played a central role in the writing of "Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," a 35-page document released by the Bush administration on November 30. Feaver's analysis of polling data on Iraq was "clearly behind the victory theme" in both the document and Bush's November 30 speech on the topic, according to a December 4 New York Times article:
Although White House officials said many federal departments had contributed to the document, its relentless focus on the theme of victory strongly reflected a new voice in the administration: Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who joined the N.S.C. staff as a special adviser in June and has closely studied public opinion on the war.
Despite the president's oft-stated aversion to polls, Dr. Feaver was recruited after he and Duke colleagues presented the administration with an analysis of polls about the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004. They concluded that Americans would support a war with mounting casualties on one condition: that they believed it would ultimately succeed.
That finding, which is questioned by other political scientists, was clearly behind the victory theme in the speech and the plan, in which the word appears six times in the table of contents alone, including sections titled "Victory in Iraq is a Vital U.S. Interest" and "Our Strategy for Victory is Clear."
"This is not really a strategy document from the Pentagon about fighting the insurgency," said Christopher F. Gelpi, Dr. Feaver's colleague at Duke and co-author of the research on American tolerance for casualties. "The Pentagon doesn't need the president to give a speech and post a document on the White House Web site to know how to fight the insurgents. The document is clearly targeted at American public opinion."
From the December 2 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
JIM ANGLE [guest host]: All right. About a minute left. That raises the question of why the president and the Pentagon haven't paid more attention to public opinion and haven't done more to make sure that they weren't losing this war in the halls of Congress. What do you think, Charles?
KRAUTHAMMER: The president, I think, is a person who leads and he is probably the least poll-driven president in our history. Succeeding the most poll-driven president in our history, Bill Clinton. And I think he's ignored that. I think he understands that diplomacy, public diplomacy at home is extremely important. But in the end, his words aren't going to make a difference, it's going to be what's happening on the ground. If our casualties are reduced, we will succeed, I think, in changing public opinion, otherwise it's not going to happen.