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Poll use and policy -making in the White House: 1993–2000

Jeanne S Zaino, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In the later half of the twentieth century, political polling increased dramatically. Increased reliance on polling has been particularly evident in the White House. Every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has relied on polling and pollsters to assess opinion on a variety of important issues. Despite this, there has been relatively little examination as to how officials use this data and how it impacts policy and decision-making. The dearth in research has given rise to a great deal of speculation. Some scholars and journalists have suggested that officials pander to opinion. Others have argued that polls are used to craft rhetoric and market favored policies. While still others have concluded the data is not used at all. This study examines how officials use survey data in policy and decision-making. It builds on the sociology of knowledge application literature to both define and develop several models of use. These models are then applied to several cases of decision and policy-making during the Clinton administration (1992–2000), the most recent White House for which we have a complete record. The case analysis shows that polls are used in a variety of ways, not only to pander and craft rhetoric, but also to set parameters, legitimize, and develop an offensive strategy. The findings show that while polls are used in ways that result in responsiveness to the majority will, they are also used in ways that do not. Democratic officials not only act contrary to popular opinion, but polls aid in this endeavor. These findings suggest that while polls do not consistently undermine democratic government, neither do they necessarily facilitate it either. Consequently, those seeking a larger voice for the public in democratic affairs are cautioned against relying on polls as a primary linking mechanism.

Subject Area

Political science|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Zaino, Jeanne S, "Poll use and policy -making in the White House: 1993–2000" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3152763.