Speaking for The People

One theme I try to highlight here, as news allows, is the constructive role that polling and opinion research play within political campaigns and governing. We certainly hear the contrary view, best summed up by Joe Klein in Politics Lost, of the "pollster-consultant industrial complex" that has "drained a good deal of the life of democracy," rendering it reactionary "to the results of their polling and focus groups."

While Klein's argument has a good deal of merit, I hope we don't lose sight of the positive contribution of polling and focus groups. For better or worse, these tools help bring the voice of ordinary people into in the often insular world of politics and governing in Washington.

We can see that role on display in yesterday's profile of Obama senior advisor David Axelrod by Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times. The piece describes a regular Wednesday night meeting that Axelrod holds with handful of advisers, "nearly all of whom played a key role in paving Mr. Obama’s path to the Oval Office," as well as similar meetings involving the speechwriting and communications staff at the White House. The last two paragraphs are telling:

Jon Favreau, the president’s chief speechwriter, said there was a familiar refrain during these meetings, with Mr. Axelrod urging the team not to become consumed by the insularity of Washington. “Can I speak on behalf of the American people here?” he said Mr. Axelrod often asks aloud.

That is precisely why, Mr. Axelrod said, he convened the Wednesday Night Meetings: to keep the pulse of what people were thinking. Locked in the White House all day, he added, he can no longer hear those voices on his own.

Not surprisingly, a pollster plays a prominent role in the Wednesday Night Meetings:

[T]he Wednesday night meetings suggest that the strong belief in polling and focus groups from the campaign are alive in the White House. Joel Benenson, a pollster for Mr. Obama, is among the participants in the sessions. He said that Mr. Axelrod often asked one question above all: “How do we make sure that the arguments from the president’s agenda are made in the most persuasive way?”

While many will be troubled by the continuing influence of pollsters and campaign advisors in the Obama administration, we should remember that many of these decision makers turn to polls and survey research in order to hear from those whose perspective is often lost inside the Beltway.