Politics & Policy

Pushing Back

Is public opinion about to change?

Throughout this fall President Bush has suffered a constant barrage from Democrats and antiwar critics who charge that he manipulated pre-war intelligence in order to fool the American people into a war with Iraq. Not surprisingly, against this backdrop of hostility, the president’s poll numbers began to fall. And fall. And fall.

Now, in mid-November, only 35 percent of Americans approve of how the president is handling the war in Iraq. Nearly 60 percent of the country believes the president is dishonest. Our commander-in-chief appears to have hit rock bottom, and most wonder whether he can escape from what seems to be political quicksand. No matter what he does to pull himself out, pundits and political elites just keep repeating that he is sinking–and quickly.

That is, in fact, all that Americans have heard for the past three months–until now.

The academic field of political science contains an entire literature devoted to public opinion–how one understands, predicts, and steers what the public believes. There are models to explain mass opinion, but most view it as a product of elite discourse. Citizens form their opinion about the president, and politics generally, from what they hear from policy experts on the news, read in the paper, and pick up from the political authority at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

The consensus among researchers is that most people rely on those beliefs that are most familiar–at “the top of the head.” What one heard or read most recently often singly determines people’s opinions on such subjects as the economy, the war, or the president.

In the bible of public-opinion research, The Nature and Origin of Mass Opinion, John Zaller demonstrates that periodically the “flow of political communication really is, at least for a time, heavily one-sided.” By examining shifts in public opinion after the flow of political communication becomes two-sided, he demonstrates that public opinion is the product of information flowing from elites to the masses. It is during these times of two-sided information flows that the variable partisan dispositions and political awareness of individual people really matters; the public receives competing arguments, with liberals latching onto the liberal-cued considerations, and conservatives onto the conservative-cued considerations.

Zaller produces a detailed model of this seemingly self-evident theory, but it’s one that receives scant attention–especially from inside-the-Beltway politicos.

Over the course of the past few months elite discourse has almost unanimously declared that President Bush has hit the bottom–the rock bottom–of his presidency.

The president has been hit by both sides—on the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, on the Harriet Miers confirmation to thhe Supreme Court, on the indictment of Scooter, and on casualties in Iraq. In effect, there has been a one-sided, and decidedly negative, flow of information to the American public.

Over the last week or so, that information flow became two-sided once again. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld all started to aggressively and continuously challenge Democratic claims that the president “lied us into war in Iraq.” The Republican National Committee stepped up as well, releasing a video composed of prominent Democrats calling Saddam Hussein a clear and present danger to the United States and calling regime change the only solution. While the pundits are restless, waiting in eager anticipation to see how this new strategy influences poll numbers, the public opinion literature would suggest that the White House has chosen the best line of attack.

It doesn’t quite matter what the president says–although he’s right to hammer home the irresponsible dishonesty of the Democratic leadership. What’s important is that he is saying something that provides conservatives and Republicans with positive considerations to shield against the barrage of criticism.

The president has successfully interrupted what Zaller refers to as the “mainstream pattern” of conversation, in which an elite consensus has emerged around the “belief” that the president is faltering because of a dishonest administration. Periods of mainstream politics are interrupted when certain elites raise a “countervalent,” or opposing position. This ultimately leads to what Zaller refers to as the “polarization effect,” when a partisan-cued split creates a rift in public opinion.

A shift from a mainstreaming effect to a polarization effect created sharp changes in public opinion during the Vietnam War. In 1964 there was nearly 80-percent support for the war among both liberals and conservatives who were politically sophisticated. As elite opinion began to diverge, so too did mass opinion, with only about 40 percent of liberals supporting the war by 1970.

Similarly, during the first Persian Gulf War, there was virtually no opposition until President Bush’s announcement that he would send several hundred thousand troops to the region. As 1990 national election survey data shows, the divide in public opinion coincided nearly simultaneously with the elite partisan split over this decision.

This shift from a mainstreaming effect to a polarization effect is exactly what happened recently in the case of the Iraq war. Unfortunately, the side of the debate that supported the war virtually dropped out of sight. Instead, the only thing the public heard was criticism of the war. In challenging Democratic, anti-war charges, the president and the Republican party are attempting to reestablish the polarization effect by introducing the countervalent information flow back into the media. In this they should be successful since there are plenty of Republicans who respond to elite cues when they are provided.

By speaking out the Bush administration has created a competing message, a competing viewpoint, and, finally, generated a two-sided information flow. By revealing the Democrats’ discrepancies, the administration has brought a new argument into the public discourse, and established a flow of new, more favorable considerations to the public from which they will construct their constantly shifting opinions. With the White House now striking back we can expect a clear, decisive upswing in the public’s opinion of the president.

Sabrina Leigh Schaeffer works for a Republican coalition in Washington, D.C..


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