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Study Finds Political Pandering To Polls a Myth


Columbia/Minnesota Researchers Say Policy Decisions
Are Less Influenced by Public Opinion Data Than Critics Suggest

Following is a summary of a report titled The Myth of Pandering: Public Opinion During President Clinton's First Term, released today (Friday) by its authors, Lawrence R. Jacobs, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, and Robert Y. Shapiro, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. Dr. Jacobs can be reached at (612) 625-3384 or (612) 698-1917,; Dr. Shapiro at (212) 854-3944,

High on the list of problems often touted as afflicting American politics is the charge that policy makers "pander" to public opinion polls. The notion of the pandering politician, however, is a myth built on scattered anecdotes and ungrounded presumptions. The available evidence indicates that the responsiveness of government to public opinion polls during Clinton's first term was at or near its lowest recorded level, especially in the area of social policy.

A careful comparison of government policy with such polls conducted by major survey organizations points to a persistent pattern since 1980: a generally low and at times declining influence of public opinion on policymaking, especially during the Clinton presidency.

We interviewed 114 people who advised or worked in the executive and legislative branches. They included senior congressional staff, departmental officials and top administration advisers. The interviews revealed the following: First, public opinion was not identified as a decisive influence on the formulation of policy. Second, personal beliefs and ideological convictions of the decision makers themselves were the primary influence on policy. Third, however, polling information was useful in choosing language and arguments to describe the decided policies and build public support for them.

Administration officials insisted to us that Clinton's health reform plan was driven by the President's personal policy preferences and beliefs and not public opinion. Stanley Greenberg, the President's primary pollster in 1993 and 1994, was locked out of the process of policy formulation; he was invited back into the process after the policy was largely set and it was time to sell the plan. Republican members of Congress similarly explained that polls were important in selling but not in making policy during 1995 and 1996.

The charge of pandering politicians invites the presumption that more leeway ought to be given to political leaders. This is an erroneous conclusion. Political leaders already exercise significant discretion. If anything, they should pay more attention to public concerns and preferences.

This report has been supported by the Russell Sage Foundation and an Investigator Award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. This continuing research is being conducted at the University of Minnesota and at the Barnard-Columbia Center for Urban Policy and Paul F. Lazarsfeld Center for the Social Sciences at Columbia University. The interpretations presented in the report are solely the authors'.

A full text of the report is available from either researcher or by calling 212-854-5573.