Dispatches: Can Pollsters Influence Policy by Determining Whose Voices Are Heard?

02/19/2009 08:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Brian Schaffner Associate Professor of political science, University of Massachusetts

This post is part of's week-long series on Stan Greenberg's new book, Dispatches from the War Room.

I've enjoyed reading through Greenberg's thought-provoking book over the last several days. The exercise has led me to think not just about the relationship between pollsters and their clients, but also about the role of pollsters and political consultants in our democratic system. Greenberg makes an interesting case that pollsters play an integral role in helping to link elected officials to those they govern, and his argument is convincing.


In his lead-off post on Tuesday, Mark referred to V.O. Key's famous definition of public opinion. The quote was familiar for me (and many others, I'm sure) as I use it as a point of departure for my PhD course on political behavior. Key described public opinion as "those opinions held by private citizens which governments find it prudent to heed." I've added the emphasis to the second part of the sentence because I think it is crucial. For Key, "opinions held by private citizens" do not, on their own, rise to the level of public opinion. Rather, only those opinions that capture the attention of political elites can be classified as public opinion. But which attitudes are these? Or, perhaps more to the point, whose attitudes are these?

Greenberg points out in his book that he initially gained notoriety by reporting on his study of white union members in Michigan (p. 19-20). The report caused a "storm" and led to a lot of focus in Democratic circles about how to win back the so-called "Reagan Democrats." The DLC hired Greenberg to gain more insight into how to win over this group and much of Clinton's appeal was his ability to speak to these working class whites. "Reagan Democrats" were suddenly exercising significant influence over how Democrats would campaign and, ultimately, how they would govern.

But time and resources are finite and politics is a zero-sum game. When pollsters draw politicians' attention to groups like "Reagan Democrats," other groups will necessarily get less attention and, therefore, may be less represented in government. Consider this quote from a story by Politico's Avi Zenilman just after the verdict in our most recent election:

"Unions, Hispanic groups, the Netroots, progressive organizing coalitions, single women, working women, youth, the religious left -- to name just a few -- all claim to have played a vital role in electing Barack Obama. And each says he owes them for that role."

These groups are actively lobbying for elected officials to notice their importance in the last election because they understand that being viewed in that light will lead to more influence over government. But it strikes me that pollsters may have a special role in telling their clients which of these groups have the most valid claims and should be paid special attention to.

This brings me back to how influential the role of a pollster can be during the time between elections. At the end of the book, Greenberg notes that he was always careful to limit his role to reporting on public opinion and avoided devising policy prescriptions (as Clinton himself said, "he wouldn't tell me what to do"). This suggests a relatively innocuous role for a pollster--one that is merely informational. However, if pollsters play a key role in identifying particular groups--"swing voters" or otherwise--that politicians should be particularly concerned with, then doesn't their role become far more influential? After all, the voters that politicians think they need to appeal to will likely have a major influence on the types of policies those politicians promote. By choosing to shine the spotlight on some groups, don't pollsters (and ultimately their clients) leave other groups in the dark?

So I'm interested in hearing the extent to which Greenberg thinks that his role as a pollster was influential simply by identifying some groups as "swing voters" but not others. There are so many different ways to slice and dice the public to identify the next influential group (whether it be "Reagan Democrats" or "married mums"); does Greenberg see any groups who were largely overlooked by government because they never rose to "swing voter" status? And if he was going to go back out into the country now, as he did after the 1984 election, and focus attention on a particular group of citizens, which group does he think would be most deserving of his attention?