By Richard Morin
By Richard Morin
Allegations that President Clinton had sex with a young White House intern haven't yet sent his presidency into free fall but the scandal already has turned conventional wisdom about public opinion and the president on its head.
More than two weeks after the first reports that Clinton may have had sex with former intern Monica Lewinsky, more people than ever approve of the job Clinton's doing as president, and have a favorable view of him and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Most also say he's got the honesty and integrity to be president, and the proportion is growing by the day.
But that's not the most surprising news from recent scandal polls. This is: More Americans than ever think the country is headed in the right direction and the number of optimists has actually grown since the scandal broke, not declined.
It's true. In the latest Washington Post survey, conducted Jan. 28-31, 61 percent of those interviewed said the country was headed in the "right direction." That's 17 percentage points higher than the 44 percent who offered a similarly optimistic view in a Post-ABC News poll conducted immediately before the scandal broke. A third of the respondents then said the nation was "pretty seriously off on the wrong track."
It's surprising enough that the national mood didn't decline, much less that it improved dramatically as a consequence of the scandal stories. After all, many observers including this writer suspected that concerns about values and the country's moral health were keeping the "wrong track" numbers high, despite a booming economy. A presidential sex scandal would seem just the prod to send those numbers plummeting. But it wasn't.
What's going on here? To find out, I posted a message on an electronic bulletin board maintained by the American Association for Public Opinion Research asking AAPOR members to speculate what might be behind these curious results.
Some say that poll respondents were thinking Monica and Bill, no matter what question we asked.
"It may be a subtraction sort of effect," says Roberta Sangster, survey methodologist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Right now, I think people are thinking of the question in context of the Monica Lewinsky thing and saying, 'Hey, this shouldn't count against him' and taking the personal attributes out of the 'right direction' question .... People are putting everything into this 'Monica' context whether we ask them to or not."
Others wonder if people aren't rallying behind Clinton in the face of a media feeding frenzy over the as-yet-unsubstantiated charges leveled against the president.
"I think this may be the traditional rally effect in a slightly different form," suggests political scientist Bruce Altschuler of the State University of New York at Oswego. "The traditional view has been that many foreign policy crises cause a rally-round-the-flag effect even when they are disasters like the U2 affair or the Iran hostage crisis. Could there be a domestic version of this?"
Richard Halpern, a consultant with Strategic Marketing and Opinion Research, asks if we might be looking at an underdog effect. "With all the unproven allegations about Clinton's behavior and the attempted character assassinations, is it remotely possible that he is now seen as the underdog?" he says. "And we know how the public reacts to underdogs."
Others suspect that Clinton's buoyant State of the Union speech was exactly the right antidote to the scandal news.
"It's the economy, stupid. And more precisely, even thought I knew the numbers were good, how can you resist a State of the Union speech with the litany of good news that Clinton brought in the first few moments?" says Karen Donelan of the Harvard University School of Public Health. "Ross Perot must be one miserable guy this week. The deficits? Gone. The balanced budget? Earlier than expected. The expected surplus? We can save Social Security for the next two generations. Who cares where Clinton is going? The country, what your question asks about, is doing just fine."
In particular, the president's good news about the deficit may have resonated with many Americans.
"Clinton led off his address with news that the budget deficit has been whittled down to zero in 1998," says political scientist David Kimball of Ohio State University.
"Many people may not have been aware of how far or how quickly the deficit has been reduced, and the report carries more authority when the president says it. It was only a few years ago that the deficit was mentioned most often as the most important problem facing the country. Thus, deficit reduction may have convinced many that the country is heading in the right direction," Kimball says.
Others suggest that the scandal may have prompted Americans to pay closer attention to national affairs and they have liked what they saw.
"I believe the incidents of the past couple of weeks have caused many Americans to pay attention to public affairs more closely than they usually do, and stop and evaluate how well-off they actually are," says Chris Garcia, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.
At the same time, Garcia says the media "were diverted away from their usual emphasis on crime and other symptoms of a decaying, declining, corrupt society, and their investigative scandal-mongering was all focused on attacking what many consider to be the rightly private behavior of their president."
James Beniger, associate professor of communications at the University of Southern California, says Americans traditionally get their news and views from outlets that appear sympathetic to their personal political ideologies, whether they be "Dittoheads" or hard-core Democrats a fact of national life that works against consensus.
Perhaps, Beniger suggests, "for one shining moment in our nation's history ... this tradition was suspended. The big question remains: Can this ever be done again?"
Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at email@example.com.
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