« Link of the Day: Hard Truths Edition | Main | Three Million HSA Users Can Be Wrong »

January 31, 2006

Bush and Polls

In advance of Bush's State of the Union, this cautionary from John Cole strikes me as important:

Can I ask you commenters a favor? Quit citing poll after poll after poll of Bush’s approval ratings. They suck. They are historically low. I will concede they are probably going to stay that way, barring a miracle. So until they change dramatically, quit citing them.

Why? Because they DO NOT MATTER. This administration CLEARLY does not give two hoots in hell about poll numbers. They have both houses of Congress (and, barring a total disaster, will retain them in 2006), they have the White House, they just rammed through two very conservative Supreme Court Justices, they are filling the State Department and the CIA and every agency with young conservative political appointees, and they are simply having their way with the government and the country.

Bush and Cheney and Rove do not care about the poll numbers. If they did, they would change their behavior and do all sorts of popular little things like the famous Dick Morris triangulation schemes (school uniforms, etc.). But they aren’t, and they won’t.

That's wrong, save in myth. The President's poll numbers will likely decide the 2006 election. Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and George Bush surely do care about retaining Congress, if for no other reason then the rash of investigations that would result from Speaker Pelosi would end the Bush Presidency as a policy-making institution. And while there's little doubt that the triumvirate at 1600 Pennsylvania don't see low poll numbers as a constraint on action, they do see it as a constraint on conservative action. Their rhetoric tonight will be a perfect reflection of high polling priorities, led by the highest polling domestic worry of all: health costs.

A couple years back, Josh Green wrote an excellent article on this very subject. As he put it, the president doesn't believe in polling -- just ask his pollsters:

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.

That last is a particularly important point. Polling gets a bad rap, but in theory, it's a Democratic godsend. In a country with 300 million people, some sort affordable method of gathering popular priorities and preferences is exactly what the polity needs to continue functioning. A town hall here or there excludes the busy, the immobile, or the civically apathetic, the mailbag excludes most everyone. Polling, in theory, can take public temperature at low cost, enabling politicians to quickly hear and address the concerns of their constituents.

But polling, in its more cynical, routinized form, does quite the opposite. It seeks to convince that the politician's priorities are, in fact, their desires. Tonight, George W. Bush will announce his renewed support for Health Savings Accounts. His support, notably its phrasing and emphasis, will have been heavily polled. But none of those polls will have returned a public cry for more out of pocket spending, or disgust with their overly-comprehensive insurance. That's because the policy preceded the poll, and all the focus groups and surveys simply sought to pin down the most benign, inoffensive way of evading the reality of HSA's.

Bush cares about polls. Don't believe for a minute that he doesn't. But he doesn't care about what polls say about voters, only what they say about him. He cares about his own popularity because that decides his efficacy, and he uses polls to convince American's that business priorities, which are Bush's priorities, aren't actually as bad as they sound at first blush. He's very, very good at it. So good, in fact, that smart guys like John don't believe he does it.

January 31, 2006 | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c572d53ef00d8345a3eea69e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Bush and Polls:

» Preview: State of the Union Address from Unpartisan.com Political News and Blog Aggregator
Renee Montagne talks to Senior Correspondent Juan Williams about some of the topics the president is [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 31, 2006 12:34:14 PM

Comments

Quite so.

Posted by: Stephen | Jan 31, 2006 12:06:01 PM

Bush uses polls like a company with a new product. He will roll out the product no matter what, but he wants to roll it out in a way that deceives the audience into buying it. No campaign, no nominee, and no policy is presented truthfully. It seems pr works, until you get the product home and find out it's a piece of crap. The dems, on the other hand, use polls to find out what product is wanted and then tries to meet their customers needs. That's why they always seem one step behind-they are reacting not asserting. The Social Security campaign worked because the people were shown that the product was crap before they bought it. The same must happen for every bad policy or appointment, make sure people know its crap beforehand or end up with an Iraq where we are left with crap but we don't know how to get rid of it.

Posted by: sgiff | Jan 31, 2006 12:21:18 PM

Shorter:
Polls good when Clinton used them, polls bad when Bush uses them. Oh, and John Cole is a dumbass.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Jan 31, 2006 12:26:41 PM

"no other reason then..." Excuse me, but the correct usage here is "than" with an "a," not "then" with an "e." I I see this error all the time nowadays and it drives me nuts. If you were in my class, I'd whack you a letter grade for this mistake.

Posted by: Farinata X | Jan 31, 2006 12:33:33 PM

"... if for no other reason then the rash of investigations that would result from Speaker Pelosi would end the Bush Presidency as a policy-making institution"

To say nothing of the effect that having some branch of Congress would force the President to staff the Executive branch with some decidedly less hackish people.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jan 31, 2006 12:41:38 PM

Fred, did you read the post at all? The whole issue is not polls, but how they are used. It's fine if you want to reflexively disagree with everyone and everything here, but at least disagree with the stuff actually written. Sheesh.

Farinata X, no kidding. That and indiscriminate apostrophe use. Not to mention sentence fragments.

Posted by: Stephen | Jan 31, 2006 12:42:37 PM

Please ignore Ezra's pet Stalinist, and try to avoid using his pen name. The less you say to him, the better. I even feel guilty for saying something about him.

Shorter: don't feed the trolls.

Posted by: wcw | Jan 31, 2006 12:51:48 PM

Shorter: don't feed the trolls.

Let's engage in a discussion about this. To start:

Why? What does it matter? Does it hurt you? Were you looking for serious policy discussion in the comment thread of a blog post? I know that Ezra's site is a bit wonkier than others, and there are many intelligent people who have great discussions. Sometimes I can even understand what they are talking about. But this isn't a classroom, with that one guy - you know who I'm talking about - who always has to challenge everything everyone says without really listening to or understanding the subject. This isn't a business meeting or any other such thing. It is a blog, with comments. Sometimes they are very good comments. Sometimes not.

Sometimes I like to "feed the trolls" just because it gives me the giggles. And to be honest, I actually get less irritated at people like Fred and Toke than those who feel the need to self-righteously instruct the rest of us on what we are supposed to do or not do. So if you don't want to feed the trolls, then don't. If Ezra tells me to knock it off, then I will. But until then I'd appreciate it if all you comment-nannies would just back off.

And what does "pet Stalinist" mean anyway?

Posted by: Stephen | Jan 31, 2006 1:08:58 PM

why would anyone on the left trust john cole in the first place, exactly?

Posted by: pluripotentate | Jan 31, 2006 1:11:18 PM

A whole letter grade? That's pretty draconian. I trust Ezra to be smart enough to know that it's supposed to be "than" and not "then." Mistakes happen. This isn't school.

Posted by: Sara | Jan 31, 2006 1:38:39 PM

A whole letter grade? That's pretty draconian. I trust Ezra to be smart enough to know that it's supposed to be "than" and not "then." Mistakes happen. This isn't school.

Posted by: Sara | Jan 31, 2006 1:40:15 PM

This difference in poll usage, and the perception of that, is probably an interesting way in which conservatives and liberals differ.

I prefer a politician, even one I disagree with, to have a set of principles and policy goals that they want to advance, and yes, I expect them to craft a message to make those policies as palatable as possible. Marketing ideas is important and appropriate as far as I am concerned.

I don't want a politician to just do 'what is popular' and to take positions based upon polling. Liberals, as a whole, seem very comfortable (and approving of) this method as shown in the post and comments.

We could probably go further in this, with a conservative distrust of direct democracy and liberal populism. It is an interesting difference at least.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Jan 31, 2006 2:14:27 PM

The whole issue is not polls, but how they are used. It's fine if you want to reflexively disagree with everyone and everything here, but at least disagree with the stuff actually written.

Stephen, you idiot!
Do you not think each side uses polls to their own best advantage and that the real diffference might be your perception of that use?
With your limited view, how do you explain the "sensitive" and "informative" pollingn on health care when Hillary! was pushing her socialized medicine plan?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Jan 31, 2006 2:33:57 PM

why would anyone on the left trust john cole in the first place, exactly?

Because, in reading his blog for a couple of months, he's indicated a good deal of interest in getting things right. Do you have some examples of him lying (and/or being reckless with the truth)?

Posted by: washerdreyer | Jan 31, 2006 2:50:13 PM

My SOTU prediction:

Blah, blah, nuke-u-lar energy...blah, blah piecemeal health care initiatives...blah, blah freedom...Alito's wife sitting next to Laura...Many, many pans to Senator Clinton. Good night.

Posted by: Adrock | Jan 31, 2006 2:51:23 PM

And then I'd take it to the principle to complain about bizarre grading practices that prize inerrancy over content...

Posted by: Ezra | Jan 31, 2006 2:56:21 PM

If you want to beat up on HSA's, please suggest another way that we can get medical costs down.

Medical costs have increased over the past three decades 2.5% faster than total GDP growth. (Check out Rivlin and Sawhill over at the Brookings Institute.) This is unsustainable. If we ignore the problem, we are GUARANTEED a debt implosion. (R&S's words, not mine.)

So you can object to HSA's, given that they discourage preventative care; but unless you have a better suggestion, it doesn't help anything.

Posted by: Mastiff | Jan 31, 2006 3:04:24 PM

Never mind, I just saw your last post.

But having an explicit rationing system will fail, because in general, individuals can better assess their rational interest than can a central planner. The Soviet Union's collapse should have made that point clear.

There is no such thing as "intelligent" rationing, except through the continuous feedback sustem of market prices… which are, as you have noted, a rationing system themselves.

If you want to reduce prices, try allowing insurance companies to sell health insurance in all 50 states, instead of just one at a time.

Posted by: Mastiff | Jan 31, 2006 3:08:19 PM

Adrock, many thanks for saving me the trouble of having to watch the SOTU? Where did you get not only an advance copy of Bush's speech but also the directors' plans for the cable news networks?

Justus, interesting points. I'm not for the idea of letting polls completely govern the way one, um, governs. However, I don't automatically distrust polls, even the ones that have, for me, disturbing results. Aside from a conservative distrust of direct democracy and populism - good insight, btw - there may also be an element of being suspicious of "scientific" polling. Not for you, perhaps, but for many in the GOP. From my perspective, when Bush was riding high in the polls, liberals tended to ask why so many people liked him in spite of X, Y and Z. Now that he is so low, I see many conservative arguments that the polls are invalid, yet another example of the liberal media, etc.

Fred, take some adderall or lithium or whatever it is you have that helps you to make the slightest bit of sense.

Posted by: Stephen | Jan 31, 2006 3:09:40 PM

Stephen,

I don't distrust polls exactly, I used to work in the industry, albiet at a reletively low level. I understand polling fairly well, and their are good ones and bad ones.

It isn't that I distrust polls per se, it is that I distrust governing by direct democracy, too much chance of a 'bread and circuses' result that can be very damaging. I am sure a lot of people want government funded health care. I am not sure a lot of people understand what some of the costs of such a thing would be.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Jan 31, 2006 3:14:48 PM

And then I'd take it to the principle...

hehehe

Said in jest? The principal of the school, or the principle that content matters more than form?

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Jan 31, 2006 3:21:10 PM

Mastiff: A very large part of the inflation in health costs are administrative costs , as Kash explains at the Angry Bear - more than 15% of private heatlth insurance payments, currently. Note that this does not include the administrative costs of the providers, which any MD will tell you are killing them with costs of dealing with the different infotech systems of the many insurers and fighting with them over varying coverage issues.

In a follow-on post, Kash at Angry Bear says:
As another useful data point we can examine the case of Taiwan, a country that replaced a collection of different insurance schemes with a National Health Insurance program in 1995. The percent of Taiwanese with health insurance rose from about 60% in 1994 to 96% a few years later. It turns out that in Taiwan's case, the forces that would increase costs roughly balanced the forces that would decrease costs.

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Jan 31, 2006 3:36:48 PM

Hey Nastiff: Any data that argues HSA's will substantively reduce cost?

No?

Yeah, I didn't think so.

And by the way: I know exactly how to reduce costs. Single-payer, nationalized system. It's worked in every other industrialized nation. And administrative costs aren't the problem (though they don't help), it's what we pay for services in a system where suppliers hold all the cards.

Posted by: Ezra | Jan 31, 2006 3:42:02 PM

This difference in poll usage, and the perception of that, is probably an interesting way in which conservatives and liberals differ.

I prefer a politician, even one I disagree with, to have a set of principles and policy goals that they want to advance, and yes, I expect them to craft a message to make those policies as palatable as possible. Marketing ideas is important and appropriate as far as I am concerned.

I don't want a politician to just do 'what is popular' and to take positions based upon polling. Liberals, as a whole, seem very comfortable (and approving of) this method as shown in the post and comments.

We could probably go further in this, with a conservative distrust of direct democracy and liberal populism. It is an interesting difference at least.

That could be a complicated issue, but it seems inconsistent with an even more common attack on Democrats, namely that they're out of touch with Middle America or their constituents or whatever. Fred makes that charge all the time. I happen to agree with you that it's bad, but I just wish the anti-left could decide if we're too pragmatic or too unrealistic.

Also, conservatives want to weaken judicial review and the liberals supposedly control the courts, the least democratic part of the government. Your theory about populism vs. distrust of direct democracy, if correct, is sharply at odds with that held by almost all right-wingers.

As for support for the governing by polls, the closest thing I see in this thread is sgiff's comment. Everyone else is either off-topic or calling Bush's way of doing things dishonest. Which is pretty evident, if for no other reason than the fact that he claims not to care about polls. I'm just not seeing the position that twisting one's position to accomodate the latest bump in polls is something liberals like. All Ezra said was that polls are the most reliable way to find out what people want, but turning that into "politicians should do whatever polls say is popular" is really jumping to conclusions.

Posted by: Cyrus | Jan 31, 2006 4:08:45 PM

I know exactly how to reduce costs. Single-payer, nationalized system.

If costs are the only consideration, why limit this grand idea to healthcare? How about housing? Schools? Food? Retirement needs?
Well, the reality which Ezra refuses to face is that costs are not the only consideration. If it were, we would all be on board with single-payer big government system in healthcare and all of these other essential needs as well.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Jan 31, 2006 4:21:58 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.