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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Public Opinion, Political Strategy and Leadership

I’ve done a couple of posts (here and here) on Stan Greenberg’s fascinating new book, Dispatches From the War Room–enough, I hope, to interest folks in reading Stan’s unique memoir in its entirety.
But I’d be remiss in failing to write a few notes about the central issue of Dispatches: the relationship between public opinion and political strategy, and beyond that, with political leadership.
Throughout the book, Stan challenges the common stereotype that public opinion research ruins political leaders by making them tactical, reactive, and basically gutless. That may be true with some leaders relying on some strategists and pollsters, he acknowledges, but in the right hands knowing public opinion is essential to principled leadership, and to actual change. As he puts it in a post at Pollster.com:

I come out of this believing that strong political leaders build a special bond with people, rather than flying in the face of it. Strong leadership is not defying the public, but engaging with it — using support to get things done; mobilizing the public, educating the public on challenges and goals and working to shift opinion. I look at the example of Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt who were both intensely solicitous of public opinion. Engaging with the public was a precondition for boldness. That contrasts with Bush and Cheney who thought they were strong because they pursued bold policies, never guided by polls and focus groups, but I think we can look now at the consequences. President Obama’s special bond with people is part of his leadership but he will struggle like these leaders to keep people with him and enhance his chances of success. That makes for stronger and more democratic leadership and produce greater civic engagement.

This crucial distinction between the proper and improper role of public opinion research by political leaders comes out most clearly in the chapter of Dispatches about Ehud Barak. In one of the most emotional passages in the entire book, Stan defends himself against charges that he led Barak to abandon negotiations with Syria based on adverse poll results. But he then goes on to explain how in the midst of the famously intense negotiations with the Palestinians over a proposed “final status” settlement, Barak used constant polling not to determine his negotiating stance, but to measure his relative success in bringing Israelis along with him in his astoundingly bold course of action. And to Stan’s own surprise, public opinion in Israel moved significantly on issues long thought to be carved in stone. In the end, Stan suggests, it was the inability of Palestinian leaders even to attempt a similar feat of leadership and public education in their own community that doomed the whole enterprise.
To put it another way, political leaders who do what they are so often urged to do, and eschew public opinion research in order to avoid the temptation of following rather than leading, are actually denying themselves an essential tool for leadership: the ability to intelligently engage the public. To cite a prosaic parallel, those who tell politicians not to use polls are much like the baseball “traditionalists” who have spent much of the last three decades fighting the use of sophisticated statistical methods in evaluating the game and its players. As the baseball pioneer Bill James once observed, people who don’t want more information are almost certainly relying on assumptions and stereotypes that are no less imprisoning than “statistics.” It’s the same with public opinion research. Those who don’t want to know what the public thinks probably assume they already know without asking, or, worse yet, like Bush and Cheney, don’t really care. Wilfull Ignorance or arrogant indifference isn’t really a better option than knowledge when it comes to political leadership in a democracy.
I should also mention a corollary of this approach to public opinion that helps explain the title of Stan’s book: the War Room. The whole idea of a campaign War Room, which originated in the 1992 Clinton campaign, was to foster a highly integrated message and field operation with (literally) no walls. From the point of view of the campaign pollster, that meant sharing all the public opinion research, good or bad, conclusive or inconclusive, with everyone else, as part of an ongoing and highly collaborative effort. Stan doesn’t come right out and say it, but the War Room approach also helped insure that no one, and certainly not the pollster, was given an opportunity to become a backstairs Mephistopheles tempting the candidate to trim his or her sails and abandon the broader strategy and the broader “mission” in search of short-term advantage.
Thus this “pollster’s memoir” actually serves as a very rich and entertaining meditation on the nature of leadership in a democracy–particularly progressive leadership at a time when the public is demanding change. That’s why Dispatches, for all its value as recent history, is especially relevant for progressives right now.

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