In column #32, "Elites Overwhelm the People", we saw how Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush by the turn of the century finally understood the possibilities for using public-interest ("what-do-I-do") polling, as well as the traditional standby for presidential candidates, "what-should-I-say" polling. What about future presidential elections? Would a competent and attractive candidate who chose to base his/her campaign on public-interest “what-do-I-do” polls walk off with the big prize? Not necessarily, as we can see from examining the electability problems of a couple of well-known former candidates.
If ever a presidential candidate had clear and popular positions on major issues, it was Ralph Nader in the 2000 campaign. Nader has immense knowledge of the bad practices of corporations, the need for environmental protection, and waste and corruption in government. His campaign consisted of making those evils known.
Nader had major weaknesses in areas beyond and outside of his policy positions. If I, a public-interest polling maven, were advising Nader on how to frame his 2000 campaign to rise above the single-digit support level, I would have recommended to Nader (whom I don't know personally, so I apologize if this seems presumptuous):
(1) Most of your campaign efforts should downplay issues. Only occasionally show your impressive grasp of issues.
(2) Most of your energy, resources and time should focus on explaining, clearly and consistently, who you are and how you would be effective in the White House. Frankly most people, including me, have trouble visualizing you being president. Making a good speech, yes. With a hostile Congress and a Republican-leaning court system, how would you get a law of your choosing passed? And if you did, how would you get public support and compliance that could stand up against the clout of the corporations? What in your background, personality or character prepares you to handle the large range of difficult situations that will reach your desk? You would have had to address these questions directly, honestly and compellingly to be effective in raising your ratings. I don’t know if you could do it. If you could, you would have risen rapidly into the double-digit support column, which was your basic intention for yourself and for the Green Party.
Al Gore’s deficiency was somewhat similar. He kept changing who he was. If he was “Mr. Environment”, how come he and Bill Clinton achieved so little improvement in environmental policy in eight years? Was he a Washington insider or a good old boy from Tennessee? Did he take an easy job in the military during the Vietnam War or was he a patriot performing well the job assigned? What did his changing appearance, clothes and facial hair, mean about who he was? He failed to define himself for the public.
President George W. Bush, much less knowledgeable about many issues and less articulate, during the 2000 campaign could respond to an inquiry about his heavy drinking, without denying any allegation, yet be absolved because his response explained who he was both then and now. He said, “When I was young and foolish, I did foolish things,” implying now, older and wiser, "no more foolish things." That was apparently all that the media needed to put to rest any concern for the threat of Bush recidivism in office. Bush's drinking was hardly mentioned again in the mainstream media.
Fred Steeper, the ATI Republican pollster working with me in over 30 polls from 1987 to 2000, has also been the pollster for Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, both during their campaigns and their presidencies. Steeper's briefings of George W. Bush have been revealed in detail by the course of action Bush and his national security advisors took in preparation for the invasion of Iraq, explained in my column # 10, "Perpetual War", Oct. 9, 2002. Bush and his advisors now understand how to use public-interest poll findings to retain popular support quite effectively, but not perfectly. For example, one mistake is explained in Column #22, "How Bush Lost Non-U.S. Public Opinion," June 5, 2003.
It is hard to believe that presidential candidates, from now on, will not also understand how to use both public-interest polling and "what-should-I-say" polls. It is sad that they will probably modify their positions secretly and as minimally as possible to conform to the teachings of public-interest polling while giving, as usual, top priority to financial backers' demands and betting that the public would not feel too manipulated or ignored to furnish enough support to deliver the presidency.
Would any of the current Democratic presidential candidates for 2004 do this or, even better, forgo the support of big financial backers? The current frontrunner, Howard Dean, seems to be in tune with the public's needs and wants, without having particularly studied or commissioned public-interest polls, and seems to have found a way to finance his campaign without big backers. He is the only candidate untainted by not having sought or held a national political office. Distance from Washington insiders is the measure of "clean" in this election, where a lifetime in his father's political limelight, and now three years as president makes Bush, who never held national political office previously, the consummate insider.
In the early Democratic primary debates, many populist and progressive ideas that resonate quite well with majorities of voters emerged and, since unseating Bush has been the top challenge for all the Democratic candidates, it is not surprising that the ideas from the various candidates have converged considerably, but not in total agreement. Each must maintain at least a few distinctions they can mention when responding to the perennial question, "What distinguishes you from the other candidates?"
An exciting election – probably close and cantankerous – appears in the offing.
A good way to follow the campaign, is to go on www.pollingreport.org, which is updated almost daily, to see how goes "Bush vs. Dean" (or whatever Democratic candidate is in the lead or has the party's post-convention mandate). If you do this, you will know as accurately as the big name political pundits which horse is winning the race.
Have fun. Place your bets carefully.
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