By Richard Morin
By Richard Morin
In the newsroom, a compelling headline is called a "grabber" and editors tout a riveting story as having "nothing but readers." There's such a story and such a headline in the latest issue of the academic journal Political Science and Politics.
The article is titled "Monica Lewinsky's Contribution to Political Science." It was written by UCLA political scientist John Zaller, who ranks among the country's freshest thinkers about polls, public opinion and politics.
Zaller looks back on those frantic days in January when the Lewinsky matter first exploded on Page 1 of The Washington Post and then on everybody else's front pages and news broadcasts, prompting a flurry of polls.
His goal is to explain the inexplicable: How Clinton could survive and seemingly flourish in the polls following credible though not confirmed allegations that he carried on a sexual relationship with a young White House intern and then lied about it under oath.
To Zaller, Clinton's resiliency is a watershed event in polling and political science. "The bounce in President Clinton's job ratings that occurred in the initial 10 days of the Lewinsky imbroglio may offer as much insight into the dynamics of public opinion as any single event in recent memory," he argues. "What it shows is not just the power of a booming economy to buttress presidential popularity. It shows more generally, the importance of political substance, as against media hype, in American politics.... This lesson, which was not nearly so clear before the Lewinsky matter as it is now, ... deepens our understanding of American politics."
He reviews the results of public opinion polls conducted between Jan. 21, when the story broke, and Feb. 1. He assigns the polls to four partially overlapping periods: the "initial frenzy" in the first first two days after the scandal broke; the "charge and counter-charge" period which lasted until the State of the Union speech on Jan 27; the day of the State of the Union, and the days after the State of the Union.
He carefully notes the dramatic changes in job-approval ratings in three dozen media polls of the president's job approval ratings in each of these periods. As poll-watchers might recall, the immediate public reaction dying the "initial frenzy" was predictably negative: Clinton's approval rating dropped 8 points in Washington Post-ABC News polls, 7 points in surveys conducted by Time/CNN and by Newsweek and 3 points in a CBS/New York Times survey.
Yet his job approval rating quickly rebounded as Clinton appeared on television to deny having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared on the "Today" show to stand by her man. The impact of these two events was immediate and profound: A Gallup survey done the evening that Hillary Clinton appeared on television showed a gain of 8 percentage points from the day before, a remarkably and statistically significant increase in less than 24 hours.
Likewise, Clinton's job approval subsequently increased between 2 and 9 percentage points in the polls taken during the days prior to his State of the Union address.
Then came Clinton's highly anticipated and emotionally charged State of the Union speech, which "attracted an unusually large audience. Presumably, because people wanted to see how the crisis-stricken president would perform."
Clinton, of course, delivered what Zaller implies is the speech that saved his presidency. It was by all accounts businesslike and forward-looking, while at the same time long on the accomplishments of his administration, notably the strong economy at home and peace abroad.
Again, the president's job approval rating bumped up, this time by about 3 percentage points and likely in response to favorable news coverage of the speech. His job rating continued to rise through to the end of January (and remains strong to this day).
Zaller sifts through all of the reasons that have been offered to explain these changes. He settles on one: The American public, so often dismissed as fickle or feckless or merely disengaged, had voted for substance over rumor and scandal in evaluating their president's performance on the job. (The public shouldn't take too many bows: Zaller suggests the public wouldn't have been so taken with "substance" if the economy had been sour.)
A key, he argues, was the State of the Union speech. "What the president trumpeted in his speech and what he would presumably continue by remaining in office was a record of peace, prosperity, and moderation," Zaller wrote. "Or more succinctly, it was a record of 'political substance.' This record was so unassailable that, to much of what the president said in the State of the Union, the Republican leadership could only offer polite applause."
There's another important actor in Zaller's tale: the media. In addition to tracking the polls, he also conducted a content analysis of network nightly news coverage during his study period. He totaled the number of "positive news minutes" and "negative news minutes" in each news broadcast.
He found that negative news dominated positive reports up until the president's State of the Union speech, when the reports sweetened demonstrably. "One point seems especially clear and important: In the period in which Clinton's support fell about 7 percentage points, media coverage was sharply negative, but in the period in which he gained back those 7 points and added an additional 8 to 10 points of support, coverage was essentially balanced."
That's not to say that Clinton the man is as admired as much as Clinton the president. In fact, polling by The Washington Post and ABC News suggests just the opposite: While his job approval remains high (61 percent in the latest ABC News poll), perceptions of his personal honesty and integrity have fallen more than 20 percentage points since the scandal broke.
But no matter. "It was not admiration for Bill Clinton's character that first buttressed and then boosted his approval ratings," Zaller argues. "It was the public reaction to the delivery of outcomes and policies that the public wants."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org .
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