THE BLOG
02/17/2009 10:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dispatches: Greenberg's Response to Blumenthal

Today's guest pollster contribution comes from Stan Greenberg, chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. He will be discussing his new book, Dispatches from the War Room all week on Pollster.com.

I very much appreciate Pollster.com hosting this discussion of the book and Mark's introductory note that raises central issues.

Let me underline one point that is at the heart of the book and then address the two key questions raised by Mark.

I started the book with columnist Joe Klein's assertion that the polling-media industrial complex diminishes politics, leaders; it makes them less bold and more risk averse. I wasn't sure he wasn't right, if you can excuse the double negative.

And as you can see, I'm pretty critical of trends in polling and critical of some of my own choices, which we can discuss.

But, I come out of this believing that strong political leaders build a special bond with people, rather than flying in the face of it. Strong leadership is not defying the public, but engaging with it -- using support to get things done; mobilizing the public, educating the public on challenges and goals and working to shift opinion. I look at the example of Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt who were both intensely solicitous of public opinion. Engaging with the public was a precondition for boldness. That contrasts with Bush and Cheney who thought they were strong because they pursued bold policies, never guided by polls and focus groups, but I think we can look now at the consequences. President Obama's special bond with people is part of his leadership but he will struggle like these leaders to keep people with him and enhance his chances of success. That makes for stronger and more democratic leadership and produce greater civic engagement. I'm not making a partisan point -- only the case for strong leadership that is solicitous of public opinion.

Mark raised two issues.

First was tactics. Yes, all campaigns are tactical but divorced from a political project, it becomes just a game and our techniques risk diminishing politics, as Klein suggested.

Example. Reassurance. Bill Clinton reassured voters by his commitment to "end welfare as we know it," support for death penalty, and commitment to cut middle class taxes. That is tactical. But with voters more comfortable about Clinton's values and how he would use government, they now were much more supportive of his bigger agenda for investing to create sustainable growth, investing in people and education, and allowing all to have health insurance. The reassurance built support for the main project, thus a strategy.

Tony Blair reassured by promising not to raise taxes and to not increase the budget over the next two years -- and that allowed voters to support him so that would invest in public services, particularly health care and education.

But when Dick Morris advised President Clinton, he relished "stealing" the Republicans' issues -- like welfare reform -- to make the Republicans irrelevant, not to advance Clinton's larger vision. Here it becomes a game and diminishes politics.

And then there is Jerusalem. My conclusion from that is that pollsters need to be unbelievably careful about assuming current attitudes are static or can't be changed. Political pollsters should not be focused on depicting current thinking, but instead, on searching for the underlying dynamism. Even strongly, deeply emotional positions can give way -- if leaders with authority in certain areas are committed their educative roles.

Remember, we also said in Bolivia that proceeding with the export of natural gas would lead to violent opposition and that voter opinions could not be moved on this deeply emotional issue. The president there was determined to make this bold move and ultimately was forced from office, as violence grew in the country.

So, Jerusalem is a lesson but so is La Paz.

[Follow the complete series here]
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