On a Friday afternoon late last year, press secretaries from every recent administration gathered in the Ward Room of the White House at the invitation of Ari Fleischer, press secretary to President Bush. There was no agenda. It was just one of those unexpectedly nice things that seemed to transpire during the brief period after September 11 when people thought of themselves as Americans first and Democrats and Republicans second. Over a lunch of crab cakes and steak, Republicans such as Fleischer and Marlin Fitzwater traded war stories with Joe Lockhart, Mike McCurry, and assorted other Democrats. Halfway through lunch, President Bush dropped by unexpectedly and launched into an impromptu briefing of his own, ticking off the items on his agenda until he arrived at the question of whether it was preferable to issue vague warnings of possible terrorist threats or to stay quietly vigilant so as not to alarm people. At this point, former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers piped up, “What do the poll numbers say?” All eyes turned to Bush. Without missing a beat, the famous Bush smirk crossed the president’s face and he replied, “In this White House, Dee Dee, we don’t poll on something as important as national security.”

This wasn’t a stray comment, but a glimpse of a larger strategy that has served Bush extremely well since he first launched his campaign for president–the myth that his administration doesn’t use polling. As Bush endlessly insisted on the campaign trail, he governs “based upon principle and not polls and focus groups.”

It’s not hard to understand the appeal of this tactic. Ever since the Clinton administration’s well-noted excesses–calling on pollsters to help determine vacation spots and family pets–polling has become a kind of shorthand for everything people dislike about Washington politics. “Pollsters have developed a reputation as Machiavellian plotters whose job it is to think up ways to exploit the public,” says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Announcing that one ignores polls, then, is an easy way of conveying an impression of leadership, judgment, and substance. No one has recognized and used this to such calculated effect as Bush. When he announced he would “bring a new tone to Washington,” he just as easily could have said he’d banish pollsters from the White House without any loss of effect. One of the most dependable poll results is that people don’t like polling.

But in fact, the Bush administration is a frequent consumer of polls, though it takes extraordinary measures to appear that it isn’t. This administration, unlike Clinton’s, rarely uses poll results to ply reporters or congressional leaders for support. “It’s rare to even hear talk of it unless you give a Bush guy a couple of drinks,” says one White House reporter. But 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.” But as Bush shifts his focus back toward a domestic agenda, he’ll be relying on his pollsters more than ever.

Bush’s Brain

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. Take, for instance, the Bush energy plan. When administration officials unveiled it last May, they repeatedly described it as “balanced” and “comprehensive,” and stressed Bush’s “leadership” and use of “modern” methods to prevent environmental damage. As Time magazine’s Jay Carney and John Dickerson revealed, van Lohuizen had poll-tested pitch phrases for weeks before arriving at these as the most likely to conciliate a skeptical public. (Again, independent polls showed weak voter support for the Bush plan.) And the “education recession” Bush trumpeted throughout the campaign? Another triumph of opinion research. Same with “school choice,” the “death tax,” and the “wealth-generating private accounts” you’ll soon hear more about when the Social Security debate heats up. Even the much-lauded national service initiative Bush proposed in his State of the Union address was the product of focus grouping. Though publicly Bush prides himself on never looking in the mirror (that’s “leadership”), privately, he’s not quite so secure. His pollsters have even conducted favorability ratings on Ari Fleischer and Karen Hughes.

Bush’s public opinion operation is split between Washington, D.C., where van Lohuizen’s firm, Voter/Consumer Research, orchestrates the primary polling, and Southfield, Mich., where Steeper’s firm, Market Strategies, runs focus groups. What the two have in common is Karl Rove. Like many in the administration, Steeper was a veteran of the first Bush presidency, and had worked with Rove on campaigns in Illinois and Missouri. Van Lohuizen has been part of the Bush team since 1991, when Rove hired him to work on a campaign to raise the local sales tax in Arlington, Texas, in order to finance a new baseball stadium for Bush’s Texas Rangers.

Like previous presidential pollsters, van Lohuizen also serves corporate clients, including Wal-Mart, Qwest, Anheuser-Busch, and Microsoft. And like his predecessors, this presents potential conflicts of interest. For example, van Lohuizen polls for Americans for Technology Leadership, a Microsoft-backed advocacy group that commissioned a van Lohuizen poll last July purporting to show strong public support for ending the government’s suit against the company. At the time, Bush’s Justice Department was deciding to do just that. Clinton pollster Mark Penn also did work for Microsoft and Clinton took heat for it. Bush has avoided criticism because few people realize he even has a pollster.

The nerve center of the Bush polling operation is a 185-station phone bank in Houston through which van Lohuizen conducts short national polls to track Bush’s “attributes,” and longer polls on specific topics about once a month. These are complemented by Steeper’s focus groups.

One real difference between Bush and Clinton is that, while Clinton was the first to read any poll, Bush maintains several degrees of separation from his pollsters. Both report to Matthew Dowd, the administration’s chief of polling, stationed at the RNC, who then reports to Rove. “Rove is a voracious consumer of polls,” says a Republican pollster. “He gets it, sifts through it, analyzes it, and gives the president the bottom line.” In other words, when it comes to polling, Rove serves as Bush’s brain.

Poll Vault

The practice of presidents poll-testing their message dates back to John E Kennedy, who wished to pursue a civil rights agenda but knew that he would have to articulate it in words that the American public in the 1960s would accept. Alarm about being known to use polls is just as old. Kennedy was so afraid of being discovered that he kept the polling data locked in a safe in the office of his brother, the attorney general. Lyndon Johnson polled more heavily than Kennedy did and learned, through polling, that allowing Vietnam to become an issue in 1964 could cost him re-election. Richard Nixon brought polling–and paranoia over polling–to a new level, believing that his appeal to voters was his reputation as a skilled policymaker, and that if people discovered the extent to which he was polling, they would view him as “slick” and desert him. So he kept his poll data in a safe in his home. But though presidents considered it shameful, polling became an important tool for governing well. Nixon was smart enough to make good use of his polls, once opting to ban oil drilling off the California coast after polling revealed it to be highly unpopular with voters. Jimmy Carter’s pollster, Pat Caddell, was the first rock-star pollster, partying with celebrities and cultivating a high-profile image as the president’s Svengali (an image considerably tarnished when Caddell’s polling for another client, Coca-Cola, became the rationale for the disastrous “New Coke” campaign in the 1980s).

Ronald Reagan polled obsessively throughout his presidency. His pollster, Richard Wirthlin, went so far as to conduct them “before Reagan was inaugurated, while he was being inaugurated, and the day after he was inaugurated,” says an administration veteran. He was the first to use polls to sell a right-wing agenda to the country, but he knew enough to retreat when polls indicated that he couldn’t win a fight. (Wirthlin’s polls convinced Reagan not to cut Social Security, as he’d planned.) By contrast, his successor, George H.W. Bush, practically eschewed polls altogether. “There was a reaction against using polls because they reacted against everything Reagan,” says Ron Hinckley, a Bush pollster. “They wanted to put their own name on everything. But their efforts to not be like Reagan took them into a framework of dealing with things that ultimately proved fatal.” Indeed, in his first two years in office, Bush is said to have conducted just two polls. Even at Bush’s highest point–after the Gulf War, when his approval rating stood at 88 percent–Hinckley says that his economic numbers were in the 40s. “We were in a hell of a lot of trouble,” he says, “and nobody wanted to listen.”

Bill Clinton, of course, polled like no other president. In addition to polling more often and in greater detail than his predecessors, he put unprecedented faith in his pollsters, elevating them to the status of senior advisers. His tendency to obsess over polls disconcerted even those closest to him, and his over-reliance on polls led to some devastating errors, such as following a Morris poll showing that voters wouldn’t accept a candid acknowledgment of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But the truth about Clinton’s use of polls is more nuanced than is generally understood.

Early in his administration, Clinton drifted away from the centrist agenda he campaigned on and staked out policy positions that appealed to his base. Like Reagan, he polled on how best to sell them to the American people. Healthcare reform is the most instructive example. Describing Clinton’s handling of healthcare reform in their book Politicians Don’t Pander: Political Manipulation and the Loss of Democratic Responsiveness, political scientists Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro conclude: “The fundamental political mistake committed by Bill Clinton and his aides was in grossly overestimating the capacity of a president to `win’ public opinion and to use public support as leverage to overcome known political obstacles–from an ideologically divided Congress to hostile interest groups.” The authors call this kind of poll-tested message “crafted talk.” Clinton learned its shortcomings firsthand and modified his subsequent use of polls. He fired his pollster, Stanley Greenberg, in favor of centrist pollsters such as Dick Morris and Mark Penn. Though widely ridiculed for it in the press, after the disastrous midterm elections in 1994, Clinton began responding to voters’ wishes, moving toward the political center.

Oftentimes these were largely symbolic nuggets like supporting school uniforms or choosing Christopher Reeve to speak at the 1996 Democratic National Convention (Reeve outpolled Walter Cronkite and John F. Kennedy, Jr.). But they also included important policies such as reforming welfare, balancing the budget, and putting 100,000 new police officers on the streets. Many of these centrist policies initially met strong resistance from congressional Democrats, the agencies, and interest groups, as well as liberals within the White House. But the fact that the policies polled well became a powerful tool of persuasion for Clinton and his centrist aides to use. Nor was Clinton afraid to act in spite of the polls, which he did on Bosnia, Haiti, the Mexican bailout, and affirmative action. Indeed, according to senior aides, it was forbidden to discuss foreign policy in the weekly polling meeting Clinton held in the White House residence. (Although, in a priceless irony, Clinton was sufficiently worried about appearing to be poll-driven that Morris drafted a list for him of the “unpopular actions you have taken despite polls.”)

“The Circle is Tight”

When George W. Bush launched his campaign for president, he did so with two prevailing thoughts in mind: to avoid his father’s mistakes and to distinguish himself from Bill Clinton. To satisfy the first, Bush needed a tax cut to rival the one being offered by Steve Forbes, at the time considered Bush’s most formidable rival for the GOP nomination. But to satisfy the second, Bush needed to engage in some tricky maneuvering. A van Lohuizen poll conducted in late 1998 showed tax cuts to be “the least popular choice” on his agenda among swing voters. So Bush faced a dilemma: He had to sell Americans a tax cut most didn’t want, using a poll-crafted sales pitch he didn’t want them to know about. In speeches, Bush started listing the tax cut after more popular items like saving Social Security and education. In March 2001, with support still flagging, he began pitching “tax cuts and debt relief” rather than just tax cuts–his polling showed that the public was much more interested in the latter. After plenty of creative math and more poll-tested phrases, Bush’s tax cut finally won passage (a larger one, in fact, than he’d been offering in ’98).

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 Roves “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. Reagan circulated favorable polling data widely among congressional Republicans in an effort to build support. Clinton did likewise and extended this tactic to the media, using polls as political currency to persuade reporters that he was on the right side of an issue. “You don’t see it like you did in the Dick Wirthlin days,” says a top Republican congressman. “The White House pollster won’t meet with the caucus to go through poll data. It just doesn’t happen.” Says a White House reporter, “The Clinton folks couldn’t wait to call you up and share polling data, and Democratic pollsters who worked for the White House were always calling you to talk about it. But there’s a general dictate under Bush that they don’t use polls to tell them what to think.” This policy extends to the president’s pollsters, who are discouraged from identifying themselves as such. The strategy seems to be working. A brief, unscientific survey of White House reporters revealed that most couldn’t name van Lohuizen as the Bush’s primary pollster (most guessed Dowd, who doesn’t actually poll). For his part, van Lohuizen sounded genuinely alarmed when I contacted him.

Crafted Talk

It’s no mystery why the Bush administration keeps its polling operation in a secure, undisclosed location. Survey after survey shows that voters don’t want a president slavishly following polls–they want “leadership” (another word that crops up in Bush’s speeches with suspicious frequency). So it’s with undisguised relish that Dowd tells me, “It was true during the campaign, it’s true now: We don’t poll policy positions. Ever.”

But voters don’t like a president to ignore their desires either. One of the abiding tensions in any democracy is between the need for leaders to respond to public opinion but also to be willing to act in ways that run counter to it. Good presidents strike the right balance. And polls, rightly used, help them do it.

But used the wrong way, polls become a way to cheat the system and evade this tension altogether. As Jacobs and Shapiro explain in Politicians Don’t Pander, with the exception of the latter Clinton years, presidents since 1980 have increasingly used polls to come up with the “crafted talk” that makes their partisan, interest-group-driven policies seem more mainstream than they really are. Consider the Republican stimulus plan unveiled last winter: So heavily did it tilt toward corporate interests that focus group participants refused to believe that it was real–yet Bush pitched it for months as a “jobs” package.

Presidents, of course, must occasionally break with public opinion. But there’s a thin line between being principled and being elitist. For many years, Democrats hurt themselves and the country by presuming they knew better than voters when it came to things like welfare, crime, and tax increases. Clinton used polling to help Democrats break this habit. Bush is more intent on using it to facilitate the GOP’s own peculiar political elitism–the conviction that coddling corporations and cutting taxes for the rich will help the count, regardless of the fact that a majority of voters disagree.

Bush’s attempt to slip a conservative agenda past a moderate public could come back to hurt him, especially now that his high approval ratings might tempt him to overreach. Recent history shows that poll-tested messages are often easy to parry. During the debate over Clinton’s healthcare plan, for instance, Republican opponents launched their own poll-tested counterattack, the famous “Harry and Louise” ads, which were broadcast mainly on airport cable networks such as “CNN Airport” where well-traveled congressmen would be sure to spot them and assume they were ubiquitous. Because lawmakers and voters never fully bought Clinton’s policy, it couldn’t withstand the carefully tested GOP rebuttal.

A similar fate befell the GOP when it took over Congress in 1995, after campaigning on a list of promises dubbed the “Contract With America.” As several pollsters and political scientists have since pointed out, the Contract’s policies were heavily geared toward the party’s conservative base but didn’t register with voters–things like corporate tax cuts and limiting the right to sue. The GOP’s strategy was to win over the press and the public with poll-tested “power phrases.” Education vouchers, for instance, were promoted as a way of “strengthening rights of parents in their children’s education,” and Republicans were instructed by RNC chairman Haley Barbour to repeat such phrases “until you vomit.” But when it came to proposals such as cutting Medicare, Republicans discovered that their confidence in being able to move public opinion–“preserving” and “protecting” Medicare–was misplaced. Clinton successfully branded them as “extremists,” and this proposal, along with many of the Contract’s provisions, never made it beyond the House.

Like so many other Republican ideas, Barbour’s has been reborn under Bush. “What’s happened over time is that there’s a lot more polling on spin,” says Jacobs. “That’s exactly where Bush is right now. He’s not polling to find out issues that the public supports so that he can respond to their substantive interests. He’s polling on presentation. To those of us who study it, most of his major policy statements come off as completely poll concocted.” Should this continue, the administration that condemns polling so righteously may not like what the polls wind up saying.

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Joshua Green is a contributing editor at the Washington Monthly and author of the forthcoming book The Rebels: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Struggle for a New American Politics.