Book reveals how presidents use polling to manipulate us

University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs and James Druckman of Northwestern have published a powerful new book that, unfortunately, provides smart, documented fodder for even more cynicism about how our system works.

In “Who Governs?” they track the rise of private polling commissioned by three presidents during the early days of the modern polling era — Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

By studying polls, confidential internal White House memos that have become public and other documents, and fitting them into the policy history of those three presidencies, Jacobs and Druckman have assembled an argument that as polling became more pervasive, presidents used the data not to give the public the policies that had the widest support but to manipulate public opinion. By their mastery of that dark art, they were free to govern generally on behalf of their most powerful supporters and, they believed, still maintain their popularity.

Political scientist John Sides, a frequent contributor to the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog (which brings a lot of political science writing into the newspaper) on Monday published a q-and-a with the authors that summarizes the book’s argument. (The interview was conducted via email and, as far as I can tell, the answers represent a joint product of the two authors.) Here are some key excerpts from the answers:  

Jacobs and Druckman:

“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.”

“Who Governs?”

LBJ attempted something similar on the issue of the Vietnam War, with less success.

Jacobs and Druckman:

“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…

“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.”

The book focuses on three presidents, the most recent of whom, Reagan, left office in 1989, because these were the presidents for whom they had access to the documents. Sides asked them if they believed that the pattern they detected would generally describe the use of polling by more recent presidents.

Jacobs and Druckman:

“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.”

The book is titled “Who Governs?” but subtitled “Presidents, Public Opinion and Manipulation.” It’s very clear from their conclusions that the authors believe that object of “manipulation” was the general public. And that the answer to “Who Governs” is that presidents often govern on behalf of their most powerful backers.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 08/11/2015 - 10:51 am.

    Manufacturing consent

    From Eric’s description here, it sounds like this book makes the same argument that Noam Chomsky and Edward Hermann did in their seminal work “Manufacturing Consent.” In fact, it sounds like this book validates Chomsky’s and Hermann’s argument.

    A lot of people dismiss or reject Chomsky and Hermann. I’m not sure I understand why. It seems to me that Jacobs and Druckman have only found evidence that confirms what I assumed was common knowledge. A lot of people don’t know this or if they do they don’t want to believe it. Just like they refuse to believe the model proposed by Chomsky and Hermann which only explains observed facts. People don’t want to believe that public opinion is something that can be manipulated, shaped or molded for somebody’s agenda. Maybe that offends the idea of “we, the people” or that we are our own governors.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/11/2015 - 12:46 pm.


      Putting numbers behind the assertion makes it much more real.

      “Maybe that offends the idea of “we, the people” or that we are our own governors.” it’s funny that we cling so fervently to those ideas. Voters, however, are just consumers in a different form. Our political “consumption” is manipulated no less vigorously or easily than our economic consumption.

  2. Submitted by John Ellenbecker on 08/11/2015 - 12:10 pm.

    This demonstrates the failure of today’s media

    The public wouldn’t be so easily manipulated if today’s media took their jobs seriously. Instead of providing legitimate investigation and analysis, today’s media seems content to simply parrot what is said by candidates and office holders.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/11/2015 - 12:14 pm.

    Messaging and dog-whistling, with a real-life example of how polling was going to manipulate the next election.

    What the GOP is looking for is a subtle, smart and connected-to-reality candidate (or a maximum of 4) that can be on message, blowing the dog-whistle when needed. The big people in the party do not want to be defined by the likes of Trump, Huckabee, Carson or Santorum–they want to have their ideas presented in a salable manner, and accepted for the brilliance of their ideas and the grand re-making of America in their vision. Trump, Huckabee, Carson and Santorum (and others) all are loose cannons in the Republican party–who knows exactly when they may make a principled stand against a deeply held desire of the big money? And face it, it is an embarassment to be represented by the aggressively ignorant end of your party’s politicians and just makes it harder for your party to get elected, especially with 18 months of noise-making before the convention. Much damage to your brand can be done in that time period. They know it is a far easier time for Democrats and Clinton over the next 18 months than for the Republican candidates. They are looking for a much-narrowed field, and soon.

    To get to the end of having a more generally acceptable candidate, I really think that Fox was trying to big-foot the initial phase of the primary season by dividing the “serious” from the “non-serious” to keep the primary season being dominated by those who are not subtle, smart or connection and would scream “come here, Rover” in lieu of the dog-whistle.

    Unfortunately for Fox, after promoting 6-1/2 years of virulent ODS, it is not surprising that their target audience did not have the desire for the subtle, smart or connected. Polling of potential voters led to the outcome we see before us. Why waste time blowing the dog-whistle when “everyone” really knows what is going on in the dirty old world of the Democratic White House.

    And that is the problem–subtlety is not sufficient with the aroused Republican base.

    It will be interesting to see how party discipline is restored to create a viable general election candidate.

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