With Reporting By Julian Hattem
During his daily press briefing on July 13, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was peppered with questions about why the president's popularity numbers are in decline and his policy positions are so difficult to sell.
ABC News's Jake Tapper sought reaction to the network's newest poll showing that 51 percent of respondents would rather have Republicans running Congress. CNN's Ed Henry wanted to know why, in that same poll, "six in 10 Americans have little or no faith in the President to make the right decisions." CBS's Chip Reid then pointed to his own network's poll showing that only 13 percent of respondents thought the president's economic programs had affected them personally.
Exasperated, Gibbs deployed a classic rejoinder: mocking the polling-obsessed media culture.
"You know, in all honesty, Chip, there isn't a website in the world that doesn't have a new poll every day," the press secretary replied. "And if you spent a lot of time sitting around worrying about polls rather than worrying about the people that you're trying to help, I'm sure you'd get discouraged. But we're way too busy to sit around looking at polls."
Too busy to look at polls? Perhaps. But not too poor to pay for them. While Gibbs routinely chides members of the press for obsessing about the day-to-day temperamental swings of the American public, behind the scenes the White House has poured plenty of money into conducting its own public opinion polls. Through June 9, 2010, the administration, via the Democratic National Committee, has spent at least $4.45 million on the services of seven different pollsters, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. (The Huffington Post looked into only those expenditures that totaled more than $5,000.)
That total represents only 18 months into the administration. During the first 24 months of the Bush administration, the Republican National Committee spent $3.1 million on polling according to a 2003 study done by Brookings. During the 2005-2006 years of the Bush administration, the RNC spent just north of $1.23 million on "surveys," "focus groups," and "polling," according to an analysis of Center for Responsive Politics data (they spent millions, instead, on telemarketing services). So far this cycle, the RNC has spent slightly more than $1 million on those same activities. (The Huffington Post did not examine data from the 2008 cycle because spending totals were affected by the presidential election.)
The expenditures seem at odds with the image that the administration and the president project publicly. During the past few months, for example, Gibbs has dismissed speculation that polling played a role in the federal government's decision to file a lawsuit against the Arizona immigration law, the president's economic agenda, and the administration's approach to health care reform. In a speech at the National Urban League's 100th anniversary convention on Thursday, the president himself laughed at the "scribes and the pundits" who wonder why he pursues policies that don't poll well.
"I have to explain to them, I've got my own pollsters. But I wasn't elected just to do what's popular," Obama said. "I was elected to do what was right."
All of which may be true. But the administration, like those of the past, is far more invested and interested in the flow of public opinion than it lets on -- wary of the perception that it is operating off anything other than pure conviction. At one point during the presidential campaign, Obama was spending more money on pollsters than the notoriously poll-driven Clinton camp.
Part of the current buys has to do with the state of American politics. The Democratic Party has congressional majorities bigger than any of those Republicans enjoyed during the Bush administration. Keeping those majorities involves a duty to protect incumbents.
"We laid out an agenda in the election and we are pursuing it now," said a senior party official. "Our polling is to get the pulse of the American people, to understand where they are, what their priorities are and how they are responding to the policies we are pursuing."
"It's par for the course for the party in power in the White House to spend more on research than the party out of power," said DNC National Press Secretary Hari Sevugan, before adding a bit of partisan flare. "What is surprising is that going into such an important election that the RNC has spent so little on research and so much on redecorating offices and sex clubs."
That said, the party's campaign committees have spent their own money on polling as well. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for instance, divided more than $1 million between six separate pollsters, according to Center for Responsive Politics data. (Figures for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are not detailed on the site).
The White House declined to comment on the nature of its polling, noting that it was done under the purview of the DNC. But sources familiar with the expenditures say that the administration has indeed done broad-themed polls on several recent hot-button issues including immigration and energy reform. And while the administration claims it hasn't made decisions based on the results, it does put heavy stock in the data.
Among the firms that have benefited are David Binder Research, which has been paid close to $800,000 this cycle; Harstad Strategic Research, which was paid more than $850,000; Benenson Strategy Group, which took in the biggest haul at $2.36 million; and AKP&D Message and Media -- WH Senior Adviser David Axelrod's old firm - which has not done polling itself but for $334,000 has helped coordinate messaging and questions for the polls, prompting the CRP to define those receipts as a polling expense.
"Part of what they are trying to figure out, I think, is trying to figure out what kind of message to use in terms of selling their policies to the country," said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University.
But, as Abramowitz points out, even with the data culled from all the polling, the evidence is mixed as to whether the administration has been able to reach or move public opinion. "The problem," he said, "is I don't see a coherent message right now." Indeed, the past year has been marked in a relatively steady decline (with natural ups and downs) in public opinion for the president. As one party operative put it, when shown the expenditures: "They spent this much money to drive their numbers this far down?"