Polls Save Clinton
By Bill Schneider/CNN
WASHINGTON (Feb. 13) -- For President Bill Clinton, getting through the past three weeks will go down in history as an amazing feat of political survival. But he didn't do it alone. He had help from an unlikely source, one that dooms presidents more often than it saves them.
Within hours after news of the Monica Lewinsky scandal leaked out, the press was ready to declare Clinton a goner.
"If these allegations are true, the president is in very deep trouble," predicted political analyst Robert Novak.
"If he gets out of this, he will be Houdini," theorized CNN Senior White House Correspondent Wolf Blitzer.
"We're in a completely different league than some of the kind of stories that we've seen in the past," suggested U.S. News & World Report's David Gergen.
Syndicated columnist George Will said the Clinton presidency was dead, "deader really than Woodrow Wilson's was after he had a stroke."
Then all of a sudden, everything changed. The national press got blindsided by shocking revelations from an unfamiliar source, the American people.
"The week that started in full crisis mode for the White House is ending with an air of, if not relaxation, at least relief. The president's public approval rating is higher than ever," reported CNN's Judy Woodruff on Jan. 30.
The polls reported a remarkable surge of public support for the president. These were not polls taken for the White House or the Democratic Party. These were polls taken by the news media.
Clinton went from a 60 to 69 percent job approval in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll. His approval jumped from 59 to 66 percent in the CNN/TIME Poll, and from 57 to 72 percent in a CBS News survey.
A poll this week showed the most dramatic result of all. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll gave Clinton his highest approval rating ever of 79 percent.
"It almost defies the law of gravity," said pollster Peter Hart. "Even Republicans, 55 percent of them are giving the president a positive job rating. Unbelievable."
The polls silenced Republicans and rallied Democrats. Did the polls have an effect on press coverage? You bet. A whole new conventional wisdom sprang up overnight.
Novak changed his tone, saying, "So what's going to happen, right now, I would still bet against impeachment. I would bet against resignation."
The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt said on CNN's "Capital Gang," "I think we can say that legally, or on the question of impeachment, that is de minimus. I mean, it just simply isn't going to happen."
The people have spoken. God bless the people! And they forced the press, baying for Clinton's blood only a few days before, to submit. The polls became crucial players in this episode. The polls saved the president, and poll-takers earned themselves the political Play of the Week.
Critics have sometimes charged polls create their own, artificial news. But in this case, the situation was reversed. The press was living in an artificial news environment, driven by its own imperatives to "get" the president.
It was the polls brought the press back to reality, and compelled them to cease and desist.