Behind the Rhetoric
Polling for the Perfect Pitch
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