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Behind the Rhetoric

Polling for the Perfect Pitch

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Last week George Bush declared that America was in the middle of an "education recession," launching a new line of attack against Al Gore that he's likely to repeat in Tuesday's debate. He used the phrase 13 times in a single speech. But where did it come from? Answer: the most unlikely of places for a candidate who frequently boasts that "we take stands without having to run polls and focus groups to tell us where we stand." As it happens, the phrase education recession was cooked up by Republican media strategist Alex Castellanos and was so thoroughly poll-tested and put before focus groups that aides can cite the exact percentage of women who reacted favorably to the phrase in each of the key battleground states. (Women in Missouri like it better than those in Iowa.)

Is this hypocrisy? After all, in seeking to replace a President who has gone so far as to test politically palatable vacation spots, Bush brandishes his disdain for the practice as proof of his own titanium character. He says over and over he is a "plainspoken man." But Bush is far more dependent on polls for shaping his message than he likes to admit, even if there is scant evidence that he uses them to develop fundamental policy positions. Remember Bob Jones? According to the Bush campaign's focus groups, you don't. In fact, Bush aides gleefully cite research showing you're more likely to think of the famous golf-course designer Robert Trent Jones than you are of the controversial South Carolina university that Bush visited last February. (Bush was criticized for being slow to denounce its hostility to Roman Catholics and its ban on interracial dating.)

Though Bush's education plan has at its core what are commonly known as school vouchers, he refuses to use the V word. It doesn't test well. "School choice" is more popular. And while aides insist Bush's Social Security plan wasn't tested in advance, the words he uses to describe it were. Which is why you'll rarely hear him call for "private" retirement accounts; "personal accounts" are less scary. And last week Bush mocked Gore's promise to give tax cuts only to "the right people," an assault that focus groups told him would work.

To be fair, Bush's team ignores some polls. The public is hardly clamoring for his $1.6 trillion tax cut, but Bush, unlike many of his fellow Republicans, keeps pushing it. And while focus groups fell hard for the infamous, nonrun G.O.P. attack ad featuring a video clip of Gore insisting that Clinton has never lied, Bush killed it on the grounds that it was deceptive. As Bush aides are quick to point out, the Gore campaign far outspends them on polling ($1.25 million to $690,000 this year). But those figures obscure the fact that much of the data Bush uses is paid for by the Republican National Committee, whose ads are coordinated with the team in Austin. Even mock anti-Bush ads have been tested to see where the candidate is most vulnerable. Last week Castellanos and a bevy of R.N.C. officials sipped beer while they watched from behind a one-way mirror as 30 Virginians registered on dial-a-meters their reactions to ads attacking Gore's positions. The ads could hit the airwaves this week.

"We never focus-group an initiative," insists a top Bush aide. "We just focus-group the language and framework of our message." But sometimes the distinction can be lost. After all, the next time Bush says, "I don't need polls to tell me what to think," voters might fairly wonder, Did a pollster tell him to say that?

--By James Carney and John F. Dickerson


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Cover Date: October 9, 2000

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