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How Clinton Confounded the Polls

By Richard Morin
Sunday, February 8, 1998; Page C04

What's the explanation for this astounding fact: Polls conducted after the disclosure of President Clinton's latest troubles not only showed that most Americans are satisfied with his performance, but that more Americans than ever thought the country was on the "right track" -- indeed, the most since the question was first asked more than two decades ago.

One intriguing answer: By focusing a harsh spotlight on the Oval Office, the scandal may have inadvertently opened America's eyes to just how well-off we are as a nation. So rather than condemning Bill, Monica and the scandal-mongering news media, perhaps all should receive a thank you for returning the rosy glow of optimism to America's cheeks.

The numbers themselves are startlingly clear. In a Washington Post survey last weekend, 61 percent of those interviewed said the country was headed in the right direction -- 17 points higher than a Post-ABC News poll conducted two weeks earlier, just days before the Lewinsky allegations became public.

A fluke? Apparently not. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported a similar finding. They re-interviewed a national sample of Americans first questioned barely two weeks ago and found the proportion of people who said they were satisfied with the way things are going had increased from 46 percent to 59 percent, the "highest number since the end of the Gulf War and more than 20 percentage points higher than a year ago."

Many public opinion experts have long been puzzled by the low "right track" numbers during these economic boom times. They suspected that concerns about values and the country's moral health were keeping the "wrong track" numbers high. By that logic, a presidential sex scandal would seem just the prod to make those numbers worse. But it didn't.

A close look at those poll numbers and interviews with experts in public opinion suggests a novel explanation that goes something like this: After the scandal broke, Americans began thinking hard about the country, the president and what really was important to them. Happily for Clinton, this collective cogitation reached its peak as he gave his State of the Union speech. Much of America was listening at the same time the president was speaking. And apparently, we liked what we heard.

"How can you resist a State of the Union speech with the litany of good news that Clinton brought in the first few moments?" said Karen Donelan, an expert in public opinion at the Harvard University School of Public Health. "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 . . . is doing just fine."

Certainly the TV ratings indicate heightened interest, prurient or otherwise, in the president's speech: An estimated 75 million Americans tuned in, a 36 percent increase from his 1996 election-year address.

"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," said Chris Garcia, professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.

The scandal also may have led Clinton to be less wonk-like and less partisan, boosting his personal appeal.

"Clinton's problems drew much more public attention to the national news media, to national news, to reporting from the White House and to utterances by Clinton -- all at a time when the president was forced by circumstances to appear especially presidential, bipartisan, nationally unifying and above the fray," said James Beniger, a communications professor at the University of Southern California. "Many at least could see, for the first time, that the devil had no tail" -- and, perhaps, convinced many of the naysayers that our country is on the highway to heaven rather than on the fast track to hell.

Rich Morin is director of polling for The Post.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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