- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

President Bush has relied on polls far less than Bill Clinton, according to Federal Election Commission filings and pollsters in both parties.
Campaigning in 2000, Mr. Bush promised to govern "based upon principle and not polls and focus groups."
Mr. Clinton was often criticized for using polls like a moistened finger in the wind to test what policy initiatives the public might be in the mood for, without regard for political principle.
"Bill Clinton clearly did more polling than Bush has," said former Clinton White House adviser Dick Morris. "Clinton had me poll every week and, during times of intense political controversy, he had me poll every night. Our polls were also probably longer, asking all sorts of policy variations."
Polls and focus groups used by presidents are actually commissioned and paid for by the parties' national committees.
At the Republican National Committee, polling director Matthew Dowd passes on to Bush chief strategist Karl Rove survey and focus-group findings of interest to the White House.
Apparently, that isn't happening as often as it did during the Clinton years. The RNC reported to the FEC a total of only $1.2 million in expenditures for polling last year less than half the money Mr. Clinton spent for polling in his first year.
Even that comparison is misleading, claims RNC spokesman Jim Dyke. Only about one-fourth ($336,040) of its total polling budget went for national surveys that asked questions of interest to the president his approval rating, voters' top concerns and generic ballot preferences. Another $615,230 went to state polling for selected candidates and $92,557 for focus groups.
Mr. Bush's conservative supporters, however, care less about the quantity of his polling than about the reason. They want him to use polling data to help advance conservative policies.
Like Democrats who felt that Mr. Clinton's poll-directed policies compromised basic liberal principles on welfare and other issues, conservative Republicans worry that Mr. Bush might use polls to find popular positions rather than policies consistent with the party's principles.
But unlike Mr. Clinton, his pollsters say, Mr. Bush avoids using surveys to put politics over principle.
"In the Clinton model, you ask a lot of people what is the right place to live," the RNC's Mr. Dowd said. "In the Bush model, you decide the right place to live and then use polling data to find out how to get there."
Polls also have a defensive function, Republican pollster Fred Steeper said.
"The Bush White House also uses polling and focus groups the same way the Bush campaign used them to find out how best to respond to what the Democrats are likely to attack us on," said Mr. Steeper, whose polls have been heavily used by the RNC.
And polls can be used to find the best way to express a policy.
"For 30 years, I've used focus groups and surveys to find language not to trick people into supporting something they wouldn't otherwise support, but to help them understand it better," says Mr. Steeper. "We use polls and focus groups to help us avoid using words that confuse the public."
Democratic strategist Vic Kamber agreed, saying that "eight out of 10 times, what we poll and focus-group for is not what the public thinks but how to articulate the positives and negatives that will come up about a policy that already has been decided on."
Polling may be used as a policy guide, he said, but rarely on an issue that goes to the heart of the party's ideology.
"Two out of 10 times there may not be any formulated policy on a subject that comes up, and you do poll to find what the public thinks of it but it's not an issue that is basic to the party's principles," Mr. Kamber said.
"Clinton knows where he is on [state] right-to-work [laws] and Bush knows where he is," he said. "Both use polls to find out how not to turn off certain voters."
"Oftentimes, issues come up that we haven't spent time formulating policy on," said Mr. Kamber. "Before the terrorism of September 11, we never thought of putting guns in cockpits with pilots, and you'd want to poll to find out whether the public accepts the idea or not."
Mr. Steeper said that both sides use polling and focus groups to find language that clarifies policies. Mr. Bush did just that on his Social Security reform plan, but not on the morally complex issue of stem-cell research, Mr. Dowd said.
On other issues at other times, however, "Bush does poll," said Mr. Morris. "Virginia, there is no Santa Claus."
But Mr. Steeper noted that Ronald Reagan, widely regarded as a president who stuck to principles regardless of contrary public opinion, "had more polling done than any other president in history except for Bill Clinton."

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