The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New research shows just how much presidents try to manipulate public opinion

(Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP)
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The political scientists James Druckman and Lawrence Jacobs have just published a book, “Who Governs? Presidents, Public Opinion, and Manipulation.” Early reviews call it “a breakthrough” and “a fascinating study” whose “picture is not pretty.”  I talked with Druckman and Jacobs about the book via e-mail. An edited version of our exchange follows.

Q: If I had to summarize the book in a tweet, it would be “Presidents try hard to manipulate opinion. They often don’t succeed.”  Is that fair? 

That’s right. We argue that presidents often use polls to identify the interests of organized and well-resourced groups that support their broad agendas. They then respond to these groups, while simultaneously using polls to devise methods to distract other Americans — leading them to focus on personality and image rather than controversial policy.

Presidents don’t consistently succeed at moving public opinion but their efforts to do so make the White House overconfident about pushing their agenda – even if it is unpopular.

Q: Talk about the data you gathered for the book, which is pretty unusual.

We worked on this book for 14 years. It relies on a novel body of data that Larry Jacobs collected for more than two decades: the private polls collected by presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan and analyzed by White House staff. We integrate archival and quantitative analysis of these three administrations with research about contemporary politics, which allows us to draw connections and implications to our own time.

By studying private White House polling and confidential memos, we demonstrate why presidents favor the policies backed by activists and donors instead of what the majority prefers. We also show how presidents try to use polling to manipulate Americans into supporting their narrow agendas.   Academics and frustrated voters today suspect that politicians play favorites; we supply a “smoking gun” from inside the White House. Thus, we are able to provide unparalleled direct evidence about inequalities in representation.

Pioneering work by Larry Bartels, Martin Gilens and Larry Jacobs with Benjamin Page demonstrate that policymakers tend to follow the views of big business and the wealthiest and ignore those of most Americans. We show how presidents actually go about doing this and also how, under varying circumstances, other groups drive presidential decisions.

Q: Your data suggest just how integral polling became to the White House during this period.

The rise of public opinion research since the 1930s has been mirrored by presidents’ use of this research. The magnitude and importance of polling to presidents escalated with John Kennedy’s presidency, taking off under Nixon and Reagan. The number of polls conducted with White House direction rose from 15 under Kennedy to 110 under Johnson, 173 under Nixon, and 204 under Reagan.

Newer technology that allows regular, relatively inexpensive, and targeted surveys contributed to the rise of polling in the White House. Changing politics were also important. With the proliferation of interest groups and the growing independence of individual members of Congress, presidents had an even greater need to marshal public support for their agendas.

Q: And you show that it’s more than just that the White House started collecting more polls.  Different presidents had different goals in collecting these data, right?

Presidents became more sophisticated at tailoring poll questions to address their specific political needs. There was a shift from just using simple, boilerplate questions about the general political environment (as Kennedy and Johnson tended to do) to developing tailored questions to advance specific political goals (under Nixon and Reagan).

For example, Johnson’s polls used an open-ended question to fish for general reactions to the president’s agenda and his personality. By comparison, Nixon and Reagan gauged the public’s reactions to specific personality traits, such as warmth and trustworthiness, as well as their performance as competent and strong leaders.

Later presidents also worked more at stitching together a coalition from discrete sets of voters. In comparison to his predecessors, Reagan consistently asked respondents their religion and income and used this information to identify the specific preferences of these groups on issues such as taxes, spending, crime and family values. This equipped him to cater to the preferences of narrow groups on the issues they most cared about – taxes for the rich and family values for Baptists and Catholics.

Q: You talk about how Nixon was trying to draw attention to his image, which seems sort of odd given that Nixon’s image is, at least to many people today, a negative one.  What was he up to?

True to character, Nixon’s inside strategy is eerie. He clinically dissected the public’s uneasiness with him as a person and the policies that it backed. At one point, a close adviser (Robert Teeter) candidly told him that public didn’t like him.

Nixon used polls, which he voraciously consumed in private, to tailor his public speeches to emphasize popular policies on domestic issues and to lift the public’s low regard for him personally by promoting his efforts to recognize China and to find a workable path forward in Vietnam. “If you don’t like me, respect me” seemed to be the theme.

Q: You mentioned above Reagan’s interest in groups like the rich and the religious.  Say a bit more about what he was doing.

All presidents – including Ronald Reagan – present themselves as representing all Americans. Behind closed doors, we found that presidents and, specifically, Reagan relied on polling to meld their policy positions to the views of their strongest supporters – in Reagan’s case, the rich, Republican loyalists, conservatives and social conservatives. Instead of using polls to follow the majority (as politicians are often assumed to be doing), Reagan used polls to mobilize his base and recruit new supporters among evangelicals. We refer to this as “segmented representation.”

Reagan revolutionized polling and produced a striking political innovation that helps to explain a riddle: Why do Americans support politicians who adopt policies that they don’t really agree with? Even as he pushed policies favored by the wealthy and politically organized conservatives, Reagan used polls to figure out how to appeal to Americans on the basis of his winsome personality and to focus them on policies that they did support.

Reagan’s innovation also helps shed light on how economic inequality has expanded in America since the 1980s. The mastery of polling and public promotion by Reagan and his successors equipped them with the skills and confidence to pursue policies favored by their supporters while working to fend off punishment at the voting booth. As we saw when Reagan and later George W. Bush supported tax cuts that primarily benefited the affluent, presidents no longer ran scared about pursuing policies that accepted or expanded economic inequality.

Q: To figure out whether all of this White House strategy actually affects Americans, you turn to Johnson. What did he want to do, and what did he actually accomplish?

We studied one of the most significant and important efforts to move public opinion: Lyndon Johnson’s concerted efforts to use his polling to hold public support as he expanded the number of U.S. troops and bombing sorties in Vietnam. Initially, he enjoyed some success in holding support and in directing public attention away from the treachery of war. But the steady increase in  U.S. casualties by 1967 overtook even the president’s determined efforts.

Our conclusion from the Johnson experience – and other research – is that presidents cannot manipulate public opinion as they’d like. But the conclusion is hardly uplifting: they are able to impact what issues the public considers worthy of attention and their over-confidence in moving Americans entices them into damaging blunders (like Vietnam) and squandering their resources on policies that exceed what is feasible.

Q: Is there any reason to suspect that the findings from these presidents don’t generalize to the present?

We think that they do generalize. Obviously, we don’t have access to the inside operations of the Obama White House but we would expect that it devoted polls to identifying the most effective words, arguments, and symbols to sell its policies and win over public support. The president’s advantage is being able to test and refine his public arguments before he gives them publicly.

Q: The way I read the book, you guys often sound pretty pessimistic about, well, American democracy.  Is that a fair impression?

We have revealed a somber picture of American democracy as having been contorted to favor the already advantaged and political insiders.

But this is not the only story we discovered. We discovered again and again that presidents failed to manufacture public opinion as they planned. Take Reagan, for example, who had to do an about-face when polls revealed the public backlash against his proposal to make Social Security voluntary.

Our research convinced us of the importance of realism when it comes to the threats facing American democracy and the opportunities. On the one hand, we need to be alert to how the White House seeks to shape the opinions of Americans. Is public opinion an independent reflection of the “popular will” or manufactured to bend to a White House’s agenda? On the other hand, this realism needs to be accompanied by a determination to seize opportunities to engage citizens in politics and thereby check the powers of presidents.