News Flash: Obama Using Polling Data

01/09/2009 02:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone, but Bloomberg News (via First Read) is reporting that President-elect Obama's political advisors have conducted focus group and survey research to help sell their economic stimulus plan:

President-elect Barack Obama's top political aides are adapting their campaign tactics to selling policy, using data from polls and focus groups to shape the debate over a stimulus plan that may cost at least $775 billion.

David Axelrod, Obama's chief political adviser, along with campaign media adviser Jim Margolis, are encouraging lawmakers to use the word "recovery" instead of recession and "investment" instead of "infrastructure." Those recommendations came from focus-group research indicating that such framing would make the package more appealing to voters.


"Not unlike news organizations, we poll public attitudes about where the economy is," Robert Gibbs, Obama's choice for White House press secretary, said in an interview yesterday. "We're not polling to see what should be in an economic-recovery plan."

There is nothing at all unusual about presidents commissioning surveys and focus groups to guide their political messaging. Pollsters conducted private, internal surveys paid for by with campaign or party committees, on behalf of every pollster since Nixon. National pollsters also provided results "piggybacked" onto polls paid for by other clients to presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Since presidents leave extensive records of both the White House paper trail (in their presidential libraries) and, since the Carter administration, in Federal Election Commission (FEC) records of party expenditures, a fairly well developed academic literature exists on how modern presidents used political polling. The pages of Public Opinion Quarterly (POQ), the academic journal of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), are particularly rich with this sort of analysis (which unfortunately, are all trapped behind the POQ/AAPOR subscription wall Update: Trapped no longer.  Thanks to the folks at POQ, for graciously opening up the links I used below to non-subscribers!).

For example, in 1995, POQ published such an analysis by Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro. They interviewed former officials and mined the archives of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and traced the "institutional development" of presidential polling in their administrations (abstract, PDF). Kennedy and Johnson spent little money on polling because their pollsters "piggybacked" presidential polls on surveys paid for by other clients. Nixon's administration devoted more money and staff to polling: "Nixon's [polls] were more detailed, extensive, and sophisticated than his predecessor's."

Three years later, in 1998, POQ published an article by Diane Heath (PDF) that examined the way presidents Nixon, Carter, Ford and Reagan used polling data within the White House. She turned to their memoranda, notes and pollster reports she found in presidential archives and did a quantitative analysis of the polling related paper trail in each administration. She found " consistent patterns and timing of polling usage" across all four administrations.


Her timing chart showed a consistent patttern:

The four administrations' polling organizations each exhibit a bell curve of increasing and decreasing usage over time.23 The curves peak with high levels of White House polling usage in year two of the first term and exhibit a significant decline in staff polling usage as the reelection campaign approaches. It is interesting that this pattern of early usage followed by declining usage correlates with Light's (1991) conception of ''the problem of policy cycles'': ''If the first two years are for learning, they are also the most important focus for agenda activity'' (Light 1991, p. 41). Polling usage, like agend activity, peaks in the second year of the administration.

In a subsequent article published by POQ in 2002 (abstract, PDF), Shoon Kathleen Murray and Peter Howard mined FEC reports for the amounts of money that presidents Carter, Ford, Reagan, Bush (41) and Clinton paid to pollsters "though their respective party organizations." In contrast to Heath, they found "significant variation" in how much different administrations use private polls. Reagan and Clinton polled "heavily from the start of their administrations," while Carter and Bush polled "only lightly during the first 3 years in office."

And finally, in 2007 POQ published yet another follow-up by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas and James A. McCann (abstract, full text) that took a somewhat different approach to the complicated task of identifying polling expenditures within the FEC reports and modeling that spending over time between 1977 and 2002. They found that presidents "do not vary significantly in the average amount spent per month on polls" and that such spending on internal polling increases throughout the term and especially "during the most intense months of a presidential reelection campaign."

So, while the academics disagree somewhat on the timing of polling during the course of each presidency, there is no question that presidents have been conducting internal polling for decades. Obama's use of polling is nothing new.