Determining the fair allocation of rights and responsibilities between any two sectors depends on how well they communicate with each other. The mainstream media -- TV, radio and press -- bombard the public with the sayings and doings of top political leaders, essentially the president and his advisors, and a few key opponents. The wants and needs of the people themselves fully get out to the world, if at all, primarily by anecdote, statistically invalid, and presented by media anchors, reporters, editors, columnists and multi-media moguls with their own agendas. The public itself and the elites hear, muddled and garbled, what purports to be the voice of the people. Without the ability to rely on good polling, which is scarce, there is an enormous asymmetry. Compare the daily load of thousands of column inches and dozens of hours of political news featuring what the leaders want and the sparse presentation of what the people want. While information technology has leaped ahead, the communications between these two sectors, leaders and public, is abysmal. It could be greatly improved by good polling.
In prior "Polling Critic" columns I have explored the nature and persistence of this sorry situation and examined its many consequences, tragic for both the United States and the world. These columns have sometimes quoted Fred Steeper, the ATI Republican pollster working with me in over 30 polls from 1987 to 2000. He has also been the pollster for Presidents George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, both during their campaigns and their presidencies. Steeper explained to me that during the campaign, the younger Bush wanted only “what-should-I-say” polls (polls that help him to get elected).
That he wanted a lot of "what-should-I-say" polls in the first year of his presidency came from Maureen Dowd, in a New York Times column on April 3, 2002. Dowd explained that, during 2001, polling costing almost $1 million was obtained for Bush, who had ridiculed leaders [read Clinton/Gore] who needed to run polls to decide how to lead, while his own great interest in poll findings was kept secret. As Dowd explained, "his pollster, Fred Steeper, is kept in a secure location – the very distant background”.
During the campaign, Steeper explained to me that Bush had no use for “what-do-I-do” polls that ATI has called "public-interest polls." His attitude toward polling prior to his 2000 election was similar to that of both presidential candidates four years earlier. In 1996, Robert Dole, the Republican candidate, and Bill Clinton, the Democratic incumbent, at different times during the campaign said publicly, “We do not want government by polling.” They wanted to know what to say and were still hardly aware of public-interest polling. They were unwittingly acknowledging that they sought self-serving “what-should-I-say” polls, not public-interest “what-do-I-do” polls. They turned their backs on the fact that the reasonable preferences of super-majorities (67+%) of Americans differ from the desires of well-heeled special interests that officials across the political spectrum routinely enact into law. By 2000, Bill Clinton understood that difference (see Breakthrough), and by 2001, as a result of Steeper's influence, if nothing else, Bush understood the difference, too. Steeper's understanding of the possible roles of polling in governance is now relevant to the question of who will be elected president in 2004 and thereafter, and whether democracy will flourish in the United States or be replaced with some other form of government. Much more complete than previously made public in my 1998 book, Locating Consensus for Democracy – a Ten Year U.S. Experiment, the following are Steeper's comments verbatim in a letter I first saw July 5, 1998:
I worked with Alan Kay through-out his ten-year polling project. The experience taught me a side of public opinion I might not have otherwise appreciated. Most conventional polls measure issues in a much different way than does Kay. Conventional polls measure issues the way they are being framed by the popular press and by our elected leaders. This type of polling serves a legitimate purpose, but it is very close to treating the public like it is no better than one of Pavlov's dogs. Indeed, one must be very careful in reading the conventional polls to see what conditioned reflex they tried to elicit with the words, "more spending", "religious right", "higher taxes", "polluters," and the like. Kay, on the other hand, wanted to go deeper than measuring public reflex; he wanted to measure what he considered true public opinion. To learn true public opinion, the public needed to have more than their liberal and conservative reflexes tapped; and, more than just that, they needed to be given a chance to consider alternatives not discussed by the popular press and by the elected leaders. Once those things were accomplished, the results were often spectacularly sensible. So sensible at times, that I eventually became a believer that there is wisdom in public opinion if you look hard enough and measure it with respect.
It may be that Kay's public interest polling is too much of a threat to our government leaders to be ever accepted by them. Why? Because it means that there is a way to know whether there is a consensus behind a liberal or conservative solution or to a Democratic Party or Republican Party solution. None of these camps really want to know that the public is not behind them on an issue; they would rather measure opinion using the way they "frame" the issue and leave it at that. There is another reason why public interest polling, in the Kay mode, will face stiff opposition. For me, it implies that decisions that seem so hard for our elected leaders to make, could be made by the public in much less time and with a more sensible result. The public does have the common sense and good will to make wise public policy choices in the general interest. And, Kay's public interest polling shows they would. Of course, a decision made by the public for the common good, would not necessarily be a good decisions for one or another special interest, and that is the biggest threat public interest polling represents to the system.
George W. Bush, as president, always seems to know what he wants to do. The public respects that kind of consistency, but inconsistencies creep in that are not noticed immediately. For example, Bush started his administration wanting to do things, such as being “humble” in international affairs (meaning he will not pay much attention to other countries’ problems) and to keep out of “nation-building”. But events, many of his own making (e.g., ignoring Henderson's proposal for responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in www.hazelhenderson.com. “Mr. Bush’s Win-Win Option”, Sept. 2001) led him to change his ideas and his policies. Now he has little international humility and, more than any other president since World War II, is into “nation-building”. Under pressure to have the United States substantially out of Iraq by November 2004, he is likely to flip again.
Fred Steeper is smart, humble, and great as a team player, designer of polls, analyzer of results and presenter of findings. Most important, he is as honest as the day is long. Good reasons why he is liked by me, apparently also by Bush, and has remained a pollster of choice by both of us through some difficult times. Steeper knew that he could not interest Bush in public-interest “what-do-I-do” polls. He also knew that after conducting a lot of “what-should-I-say” polls on an issue, if you think about what all of the different but related findings mean, you can know a lot about what the public wants, by “connecting the dots” [Steeper’s own words]. Still, when making a presentation of poll findings to Bush and his top aides, Steeper cannot call attention to any "connect-the-dots" findings he has uncovered, because it would be tantamount to saying, “You smart people are really stupid. You do not understand the public. Look at what the public really wants.” At which point, he would be shown the door and probably lose many of his other Republican clients as well.
Is Steeper alone with such opinions? Not at all. His opposite number, Stanley B. Greenberg, pollster for Clinton until the mid-90's, said of Locating Consensus for Democracy, “In a period of frenzied and irrelevant politics, this book is a breath of fresh air.” The relationship of Greenberg and Clinton's later pollsters, Dick Morris and Mark Penn, and the key roles of Morris and Penn in the successful campaigns of Clinton and Al Gore in 1996 and Hillary Clinton in 2000, and the unsuccessful role of Greenberg in the Gore campaign in 2000, were described by John F. Harris, staff reporter, in the National Weekly Edition of The Washington Post, Jan. 8-14, 2001, pp. 9-10. Morris and Penn nudged their candidates away from "what-should-I-say" polls toward "what-do-I-do" polls, although neither Penn, Morris, nor reporter Harris seem to understand the key distinctions between the two kinds of polls. The whole story, including Clinton's lesson on the value of "what-do-I-do" polling, can be found on the website "Breakthrough."
This column documented the slow acceptance of the teachings of public-interest polling by presidential candidates in previous elections. To see how that trend is developing in 2004, stay tuned for Column #33, "Public-Interest Polling Can Elect a Clean President."
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