- The Evolution of Presidential Polling
Since the 1930s, as Robert M. Eisinger observes, "all presidents with the exception of Harry Truman have privately polled citizens" (1). Why do presidents poll? And how have they used that polling data? According to Eisinger, those questions remain largely unanswered because neither students of the presidency nor of polling have systematically investigated the history of presidential polling. In The Evolution of Presidential Polling, Eisinger sets out to fill that gap by investigating presidential polling from FDR to Clinton. Eisinger is not the first to write about the topic; he lists a number of other works on the subject in his bibliography. Still, Eisinger's contribution is significant. As the most comprehensive study of presidential polling yet, Eisinger fills important gaps in our understanding of how particular presidents have used private polling, and he provides a sense of how presidential polling evolved from a small, secretive enterprise to an important and accepted component of the modern "rhetorical" presidency.
As a political scientist, Eisinger takes an institutional rather than a historical or rhetorical approach to his topic. Arguing that presidents have used private polls primarily to achieve autonomy from other political institutions, he organizes most of the book around presidential relations with Congress, the political parties, and the media. He begins with two introductory chapters [End Page 527] recalling some of the early history of polling and summarizing the level of interest in polls among presidents from FDR to Clinton. He also grounds the study in the literature on tensions between the presidency and other political institutions, including Tulis's work on the rhetorical presidency. In chapters 3 and 4, Eisinger reviews how presidents from Hoover to Nixon have sought to gauge public opinion independently of Congress, attributing those efforts to "the chief executive's strained relations with the legislative branch" (35). In chapter 5, he takes a similar approach to political parties, again arguing that "strained relations between presidents and their parties" have generated "a need by the executive branch to gauge public opinion autonomously" (74). In the sixth chapter, the institutional focus shifts to the media but the argument remains the same: by conducting their own polls, Eisinger concludes, presidents from FDR to Nixon have "snatched the powerful tool of public opinion assessment away from a potential adversary—the media—and into their own hands" (135).
Chapter 7 breaks from the institutional approach of the earlier chapters to consider a possible "counterargument": that presidents poll not to circumvent other political institutions, but simply because polls provide "better indicators of the public mood than their alternatives" (136). The two explanations are not mutually exclusive, of course, but Eisinger dismisses the alternative explanation and concludes that "politics drove and continues to actuate private polling by presidents" (144). In an eighth chapter coauthored with Andrew Zahler, Eisinger extends the chronology of his investigation into the "post-Watergate era" with assessments of polling in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. In a final chapter on presidential polling in the "post-Reagan era," Eisinger concludes that both George H. W. Bush and Clinton were "keenly interested in monitoring public opinion polls" (173), with Bush often reading "poll-related information" provided by his senior advisers and Clinton using polls much as his predecessors did: to help frame his message and to pressure Congress to support his legislative agenda.
Eisinger presents a wealth of fascinating and sometimes disturbing archival evidence of presidents using polls to determine their campaign strategies or to shape their public relations efforts while in office. Not surprisingly, some of the most manipulative uses of the polls occurred during the Nixon administration, as H. R. Haldeman directed a top-secret polling operation designed to market the president and to discredit his political "enemies," including some of the pollsters themselves. Other presidents were hardly less guilty of using polls for political purposes, of course, but Eisinger seems less critical of other presidents who have relied heavily on their private pollsters. Indeed, Eisinger defends Clinton against charges by Dick Morris and others that he not...