What a difference an election makes: GOP now likes polls

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 2, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Republicans are using ammunition they scorned for years to attack President Barack Obama's proposed health care overhaul: polls.

GOP operatives are trumpeting opinion surveys that show Obama's popularity declining and support flagging for his bid to use the federal government to provide medical coverage to uninsured Americans.

Over the August congressional break, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio issued regular news releases about health care surveys.

"New Rasmussen Poll Shows That 53 Percent of Americans Oppose Democratic Government-Run Health Plan," read an Aug. 13 release. It cited "no fewer than five polls" that it said "showed increasing concern, if not outright opposition" to the Obama efforts.

Two days earlier, Boehner cited surveys by Rasmussen, USA Today and Gallup as evidence of "continued erosion of support for the government takeover of health care."

The Republican embrace of polling, however, follows years of GOP disdain for opinion surveys.

During President Bill Clinton's two terms in office, Republican activists ridiculed his purported reliance on polls. Then, for the next eight years, GOP faithful circled the wagons around President George W. Bush as his approval ratings tanked and support for the Iraq war waned.

As Karl Rove, Bush's senior political adviser, put it in 2007: "True leadership . . . does what is right, regardless of what the latest poll or focus group says."

The Republican definition of "true leadership" appears to have changed. In addition to highlighting public doubts about Obama's healthcare proposals, Boehner, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and other GOP leaders have pointed to polls showing public disapproval of the president's economic stimulus plan and his cap-and-trade proposal to combat global warming.

Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who's among the most conservative members of Congress, issued an Aug. 4 release with the headline: "Rasmussen: 54% Oppose More Money for 'Cash for Clunkers' Program."

The Grand Old Party has launched Resurgent Republic, a nonprofit research group modeled after Democracy Corps (www.democracycorps.com), which James Carville, a former political consultant to Clinton, founded in 1999.

"As does Democracy Corps, Resurgent Republic will make survey and focus group results publicly available," the new group says on its Web site (www.resurgentrepublic.com).

"I do find it ironic that the Republicans would cherry-pick certain polls to try to make their point after claiming to reject polls during the Bush years," said Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist in Washington.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said he doesn't think it's hypocritical for Republicans to use opinion surveys to attack Obama after fending off similar criticism of his predecessor.

"I don't perceive any double standard," Steel said. "No one would suggest that we change our principles based on polling information, but it's a useful tool in the public debate."

Republicans appear intent on showing that they're in step with most Americans after 2006 and 2008 election routs that expanded Democratic control of Congress and awarded the White House to Obama.

Charlie Black, a Washington lobbyist who served as a senior adviser to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign last year, said the Arizona Republican had no interest in opinion surveys.

"You'd try to brief John on a poll, and in five minutes he'd be wandering off looking for a Coca-Cola," Black said.

Scott Rasmussen, the head of a major independent polling firm, said that Republicans and Democrats make selective use of his surveys, depending on their findings.

"They hail your poll as great when it gets the results they like, and they either ignore you or trash you when it doesn't," he said. "People on both sides of the political spectrum do that all the time."

Hypocrisy, of course, isn't new, and neither party has a monopoly on it. While some of his clients were attacking Clinton for relying on polls, Republican pollster Frank Luntz was using surveys and focus groups as the basis of former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract With America," which pledged to cut taxes, reduce government spending, overhaul welfare, end dozens of federal programs and eliminate or privatize four cabinet agencies.

"It was Newt's desire to reflect what the public felt at the time," Luntz said.

Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican, recently told a tale about Clinton that still makes the rounds in Washington almost a decade after he left office.

"For Bill Clinton's first State of the Union address, he spent $100,000 doing focus groups around the country to come up with words and phrases that had over 80 percent favorable ratings," Buyer said.

Adam Warber, a political science professor at Clemson University, said that Clinton was the first president to employ full-time staff pollsters.

"Clinton really institutionalized the process of polling in the White House," Warber said. "They were just running polls constantly. He was much more active than previous presidents."

Bush also spent millions of dollars gauging public opinion, Warber said, but he relied more on outside pollsters.

"Bush didn't want people to think he was as tied to polls as Clinton," Warber said.

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