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Barbara Hinckley
Barbara Hinckley
Follow the Leader:  Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents
ISBN: 046501335X
Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents
Professors Brace and Hinckley, co-authors of Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents published by Basic Books, discussed the relationship between the modern presidents and opinion polls on their job performance and other issues. The two political science professors discussed how presidential decisions and decision-making processes are affected by opinion polls, and the role of opinion polls in American politics. Their book chronicles the influence of polling on presidential administrations from Harry Truman to George H.W. Bush.
Follow the Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents
Program Air Date: November 8, 1992

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Paul Brace, co-author of "Follow The Leader," what impact has opinion polling had on the modern presidency?
PAUL BRACE, CO-AUTHOR, "FOLLOW THE LEADER" Well, in our book we try to trace the evolution of the office since the advent of modern regular approval polling. That begins, of course, with Harry Truman's administration. And we trace what we believe is a change in the office, attributable to polling, up through the Bush administration.

Take, for instance, Harry Truman's opinion about the polls. In his own diary, he talks--asks what Moses would have done if he'd taken a poll before going into Egypt. And he says it's leadership that matters, not the opinion of the moment. And we compare and contrast that with insider accounts of the Bush administration, not to single out Mr. Bush, but he's the last point in this evolutionary process to date, where he and John Sununu, upon getting into the White House, plotted a comparative approval chart for Mr. Bush vs. other presidents and strategized about policy and activities based upon where they were and where their predecessors had been in their administration.
LAMB: Barbara Hinckley, who started this opinion polling?
MS. BARBARA HINCKLEY, CO-AUTHOR, "FOLLOW THE LEADER" Who started the polling you mean for the--the polling people, or the president? People..
LAMB: Yeah, which...
HINCKLEY: ...are interested in...
LAMB: ...president decided this was a way to go?
HINCKLEY: I think there was a gradual evolutionary, and maybe a sudden gradual gradient now. Truman, obviously, was not very interested in the polls; Eisenhower obviously was. And we've seen, we trace out in our book the presidents who seem to be more interested in their popularity and less interested in it.

Some, like Truman or Johnson, Ford even, for example, seem to make decisions against the polls and took some kind of pride in having low approval ratings or being independent of opinions. Others, like Eisenhower or Reagan and they are probably our two best examples before Bush the polls seemed to matter a great deal.

But we now have a situation, you see, with the two presidents Reagan and Bush, that they mattered for both of them. So we may now be coming into a kind of precedent-changing situation where everyone feels they have to do this. That they have to have the poll charts up in kind of a war room in the White House to succeed.
LAMB: What method--how did you approach this thing?
BRACE: Well, we took--on a number of levels. One was we had--one, our choice of presidents was structured by this nice database which is monthly approval ratings for this entire period. And we were interested in commonalities across administrations. We were also interested in the types of activities that we could reason presidents might use to influence their polls. And we were also, alternatively, interested in how presidents react to drops in their polls and whether or not that might stimulate activity by the presidents.
LAMB: You talk about the press. What do you think of the press and its use of the opinion polls and the popularity of the president?
HINCKLEY: Well, we're seeing it right now on the '92 election. I think the problem in which people point out the polls are leading the people, or the polls are leading the professionals, including the press. And in the approval polls that we write about, the same kind of thing happens. With Bush, commentary on the polls then became a driving force when the polls were going up or down. Certainly with Carter, commentary on the polls became a driving force to make them go down at a certain time. And the other polls, election polls, you--right before the '92 election--have headlines talk about the polls as the news story. This is--something's happening here. This is no longer public opinion; it's reifying public opinion out so the--the public is reading about what the public is supposedly thinking. There's problem there, we think. And that's why we call it "Follow The Leader," because we are asking the question: Who's following and who's leading who?
LAMB: What are you--what do you want the average citizen to get from--and by the way, did you write the book for the average citizen?
LAMB: What do you want them to -- if the average person looks at the Clinton administration...
BRACE: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and has to get some help from this book about what to look for as the administration grows, what is it?
BRACE: Well, I mean there's a number of issues we need to think about, and one is the question of leadership and one is the question of democracy. Public opinion is supposed to inform our government's decisions, but it's not to dictate our government's decisions. And if presidents are focused on their month-to-month approval ratings, they aren't taking a leadership position. They aren't looking at the long term; they're looking at the short term.

And so in their efforts to be perhaps extremely responsive to short-term public opinion, presidents might avoid making the types of decisions that are good for the long-term health of the polity, of the economy, of the nation. And so I guess I would tell the public to be more cautious in rendering harsh judgments about the president in the short run, not to be overly critical when a president falls into a slump, which they all do. In the middle of their administration, presidents find themselves inevitably in a slump, and they find themselves in a precarious situation trying to dig themselves out.
LAMB: There's something called the decay curve that you write about.
HINCKLEY: That's right.
LAMB: What is it?
HINCKLEY: That's right.
BRACE: This is the common curve across all administrations. And that is if you average the approval ratings of all presidents, all our modern presidents, in their first term, you find that they come into office with their comparative high level of approval and suffer an inevitable decline through their third year.
HINCKLEY: Because the approval was artificially high to start with. Everyone...
BRACE: We believe.
HINCKLEY: ...was all excited about the new administration. Hopes ran high. This is a kind of artificial high point that's going to then come down automatically.
LAMB: Is the Inauguration Day, January the 20th, the biggest and highest day of a--usually of a president's...
HINCKLEY: I would say--I would guess so.
LAMB: ...most solid high?
HINCKLEY: We don't--we can't...
BRACE: On average it is.
HINCKLEY: ...look at before.
BRACE: You know, you might have an intervening event that could lift it higher. For instance, an international rally event, some foreign policy crisis might elevate that particular president's approval higher than when he came into office. But on average, all our presidents have this common curve within their administration. And so they enter high; they suffer decline; and then their approval picks back up right before the re-election.
LAMB: When did you decide to write this book?
HINCKLEY: I don't know now.
BRACE: Just about two years ago.
HINCKLEY: Yeah, I think so.
LAMB: And how did you two get together?
BRACE: We were colleagues at NYU--New York University--and we began discussing the project, oh, maybe three years ago. Some preliminary ideas. And we became--as we paid more and more attention to how much polling has become such a dominant influence on our discussions about politics, and particularly the presidency, this led us to explore further how much polling is influencing the office and how much it's influencing how we interpret what the president does.
LAMB: You are neither one at New York University today.
LAMB: Let me ask you briefly--where are you?
HINCKLEY: I'm at Purdue University now.
LAMB: Doing what?
HINCKLEY: Teaching American politics. Teaching on the presidency and Congress.
LAMB: Let me ask you how long you were at New York University.
HINCKLEY: About five years. And I was at the University of Wisconsin for a long time before that.
LAMB: Why this shift from a big town like New York to a small town in Indiana?
HINCKLEY: Well, I get up to Chicago pretty regularly too, so I get my city and my small town. A nice combination. Also a lot of very interesting things are going on at Purdue, so, in terms of American politics.
LAMB: What do you find, on the part of the students, the interest level, at New York University vs. Purdue?
HINCKLEY: I haven't been probably at Purdue long enough to say if it differs at all--yet, so maybe I'd better not get into that one yet.
LAMB: And you are where now?
BRACE: I have a joint appointment. I'm in the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois and in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
LAMB: Why did you make the shift?
BRACE: They made me an offer I couldn't refuse. They came after me with a very attractive employment opportunity to do research and to work within this institute. And gives me access to state politicians and a lot of interesting opportunities that I've found very attractive.
LAMB: Are you noticing any difference between New York and Illinois?
BRACE: Oh, certainly. In terms of the politics?
LAMB: Just the level of interest in politics, the attitudes.
BRACE: Certainly the attitudes. I mean, you are taking two cities that are, by most people's definitions, unique. New York is New York, and Chicago is certainly Chicago. And they're not comparable to anything else. And I would say the attitudes are very different on a lot of levels there in terms of how they view politics, and traditional political patterns in the two cities.
LAMB: Where are you both from originally and where did you go to school?
HINCKLEY: Massachusetts. I grew up in Massachusetts.
LAMB: Where?
HINCKLEY: Western Mass., outside of Holyoke, and went to Mt. Holyoke and then went to Cornell University for my Ph.D.
LAMB: All of it in political science?
HINCKLEY: No. I started in English, as a matter of fact, in literature.
LAMB: When did you first get interested in politics?
HINCKLEY: Oh, I guess that was about in the 1960s. I think I wanted to be relevant. And of course, once you get into politics, you realize you could have been just as relevant in English as you could in politics.
LAMB: Did you ever work on a campaign?
HINCKLEY: A little bit. Not too much. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Which one?
HINCKLEY: I worked in some campaigns in the late 1960s.
LAMB: Presidential? Local?
HINCKLEY: Both. Yeah.
BRACE: Went to the--I grew up in Portland, Oregon. I went to the University of Oregon, and I did my graduate studies at Michigan State University.
LAMB: When did you get interested in politics?
BRACE: 1972.
LAMB: How come?
BRACE: It was the first year I could vote. And the Vietnam War and eventually Watergate. And I think a lot of people of roughly my age cohort were interested in American politics about that time because of the events of those years.
LAMB: Have you ever worked in government, ever worked on a political campaign?
BRACE: No. No.
LAMB: Go back to your book, "Follow The Leader: Opinion Polls and The Modern Presidents." Is there anyone--and you went back and you started looking at first, post-World War II, and Harry Truman is the first of nine...
LAMB: ...presidents you looked at. You talk about Harry Truman coming in with an 87 percent popularity right after the war.
LAMB: But ending up with the lowest--I think it was 23 percent. What happened to Harry Truman?
BRACE: Harry Truman did not care about polls, as his own...
HINCKLEY: And went out of his way to show it.
BRACE: ...diaries--yes. He simply did not wish to bend to public pressures. He--again, he stressed leadership is the thing. And this sets up a problem for the presidency, because everyone's trying to bend, to compare themselves to Harry Truman now. All the presidential candidates did. He's believed to be a great leader. But he wasn't in his own administration. And so to be successful, in the long run, we're asking presidents to be very unsuccessful in the short run. To ignore polls in the short run can cost you your office. Harry Truman did not seek re-election. Harry Truman's approval ratings were way too low to have a reasonable chance at re-election in 1952. He ignored polls. So he was...
HINCKLEY: We talked about an uneasy balance.
BRACE: That's right.
HINCKLEY: That presidents have to sort of walk a tightrope between ignoring popularity too far and following it too closely. I think one thing you asked before and what we were trying to do in the book, it's also important to bring out. We want to bring the public into this game, if we can call it that, and I'm not sure it's a good word for it.

The presidents are playing the poll game; the polling organizations and the media are certainly playing a poll game; the political scientists are playing a poll game. But it's all in terms of public opinion. So we do want to try to lay out very clearly, it's quite easy to read; it's--it's easy to understand. If we're talking about a decay over time, if we're talking about uses of force, very dramatic wars, or things like that calling a rise in popularity, to have the public to understand this. So say after the Gulf War, rather than having headlines saying, `George Bush's popularity is 91 percent, a record high,' the public would--why would this be news? It shouldn't be news.
LAMB: Mm-hmm.
HINCKLEY: It's at a time when all the public could predict: Of course his popularity will be high. And four months from now, it will be down again because that's a particular event. So to bring the public into this, make them much more conscious of this public opinion game that is going on. And I think truly, maybe this sounds a bit na‹ve, ut I think truly it may have some good correcting effects.
BRACE: Right.
HINCKLEY: Because if you have a more conscious public, maybe some of the problems with this polling situation might be changed.
LAMB: What can you say, based on your research, about a Clinton administration? And is there any--are there absolute givens of what will happen?
HINCKLEY: There are some things we can say.
BRACE: Based on past performance, I'd...
BRACE: ...say the following: He will come into office at his relative peak in--barring any external events that might intervene, such as a war that we do know can stimulate a dramatic increase--short-term increase--in approval. But he'll be at his relative high his first hundred days in office. It's not coincidental that we focus on those first hundred days. That's when presidents have the most political capital to expend. Their approval is at their--at its relative peak. He will suffer an inevitable decline. It will go on through his third year. Within his administration, people might start to become paranoid, thinking that things are out of control, that we can't get--capture--recapture the public's imagination. This is about the time Jimmy Carter gave his `public malaise' speech--nobody seems to know what you want from us. Well, this is common to all presidencies. We would recommend, I think, that presidents not react to this inevitable decline and see it for what it is. Not make short-term decisions to try and resuscitate their opinion, but to ride that out and keep a focus on the long-term political goals they're trying to achieve in their administration.
LAMB: Anything else that would be...
HINCKLEY: And at the same time, not to have, say media commentators and others, react: What has Mr. Clinton done wrong? If year two or year three his polls are down. The answer is nothing. Compared to the other presidents, this is where we would expect him to be. So have the commentary ride that out, become more informed, too.
LAMB: You write about speeches--domestic speeches--and the impact, or lack of impact. What happens if a president goes into the country, makes a lot of speeches around the country, or even stays in the Oval Office and makes televised speeches? What examples do you have of those?
HINCKLEY: Well, it's different results. When the president stays in the O--Oval Office with the Seal of Office and being very presidential, his approval polls in the short term, in the immediate short term, go up. When the president goes around the country making perhaps more political speeches, we don't know, but when he sort of comes off his pedestal, got--gets less presidential, oddly enough, the polls go down.
BRACE: We feel that it's when he's traveling around the country that he's probably trying to shore up his political base. Or he might be going out and trying to bolster the political fortunes of some candidates in his party. So Ronald Reagan might go and give a speech with Jesse Helms, and that's broadcast nationally, even though the--the speech was given locally. And this can have a--an effect of diminishing the president's approval. When the president speaks to the nation from behind the desk in the Oval Office, however, this bolsters his approval. It's the one thing presidents have within their control to increase their approval.
LAMB: What about the economy? Is there a -- I kept reading, you'd go back to the economy. If the economy is bad, this will happen. No matter what?
HINCKLEY: No matter what.
LAMB: What will happen if the economy is bad? Have we just seen it...
LAMB: this campaign?
HINCKLEY: One could explain part of Bush's fall in the polls--part of Bush's pall--fall in the polls--the same way that Carter fell in the polls: because of bad economic circumstances. And there's not too much presidents can do about that. Ironically, these are factors outside of their control, although they're being, in a way, charged for these circumstances. They are held responsible for an economy; therefore, their polls will go down.
LAMB: What was the methodology you two--how did you break up the way you wrote this book between the two of you?
BRACE: Well, it was truly a collaborative effort. But I did most of the analysis, and Barbara did a lot of the interpretation. We discussed the interpretation, but--and the presentation. And Barbara did the biographical sketches, and I did the statistical modeling.
LAMB: Now, there's reference in here to several people. Clinton Rossiter, Richard Neustadt and also James David Barber. And you used the, positive/negative, that whole James David Barber way that he looks at presidents. Can you explain that and why you used that? And then you used a method that didn't necessarily track with his.
BRACE: Barber has...
LAMB: Who is he, by the way?
BRACE: James David Barber is a very senior professor at Duke University who wrote a very influential book called "Presidential Character," and he employs a methodology typically called psychobiography, in which he examines the biographies of individuals, in this case, presidents, and tries to arrive at a judgment about their future behavior based upon elements of their past.

And he breaks it down into four categories: whether they're active or negative, and whether they're passive or--excuse me--passive or active and--and positive or negative. And so active/positive usually are Democrats, and for Mr. Barber. And Kennedy would be an active/positive. Someone who puts tremendous energy into his activities in office, but he's positive in the sense that he's willing to readjust courses if he's engaged in a negative course of activity, that's to be contrasted with, say, an active/negative, someone who invests tremendous energy in their activities in office, but might get steered down a negative course and won't pull out of that negative course.
LAMB: What's that mean? A negative course?
BRACE: Can you give an example of a negative course?
HINCKLEY: Lyndon Johnson.
BRACE: Lyndon Johnson, certainly.
HINCKLEY: Several negative courses. Not talking to the public about Vietnam, perhaps pursuing the Vietnam policy longer than public support.
LAMB: Let me put some people behind these--this analysis. And by the way, why would you trust James David Barber's...
HINCKLEY: We're not.
BRACE: Not necessarily.
HINCKLEY: I mean, we--this is a very influential analysis, and we make reference to it, but...
LAMB: Why is it influential?
HINCKLEY: Because a lot of people have read the Barber book. OK? What we're doing, though, in this chapter when we do our presidents is a very different approach. We're using our own analysis of polls. And we're talking about the personality, attitudes toward politics, just as Barber is, attitudes toward public opinion, and the sort of, s you say, investing the energy in the certain kinds of political activity.

But then, we come up with our own ranking and categorization of these individual presidents based on a couple things: How they respond to public opinion and the kind of, what we call the kind of choices they make during their administration. It may cost you in the polls to have an active domestic policy program, but an active/positive or at least an active president might want to have an active domestic policy program.
LAMB: Let me--let me just mention some names. First of all...
LAMB: ...I want to show this chart here, and ask you whether this is James David Barber's chart or your chart.
HINCKLEY: That's our chart.
LAMB: That's your chart.
LAMB: And you've got the presidents here up through Ronald Reagan--you start with Harry Truman...
LAMB: He was an active/negative. Let me just go right down the list and ask each of...
HINCKLEY: These are ours, not Barber's.
LAMB: What's an active/negative?
LAMB: And why was Harry Truman an active/negative?
HINCKLEY: OK. That he, in various ways--we looked at activity in domestic policy, activity in foreign policy, activity in giving speeches and traveling around the country. So compared to our presidents, Truman ranked high in these various activity measures. Compared to our presidents, however, Truman was low in public appeal. That is, his polls were low. Controlling, for all those factors he couldn't control, like the economy and everything else. OK? That's how he came out active/negative.
LAMB: How does he--and you refer to historians rating presidents...
LAMB: He comes out pretty high?
HINCKLEY: Very high.
BRACE: Very high.
LAMB: Why?
HINCKLEY: Well, that's an irony that the people who do the short-term goals may not be looked at as well by historians who might be more concerned with the activity in the administration, even if the popularity was low.
BRACE: We should note, you know, you asked why we used Barber. It's very difficult to study the presidency in a systematic fashion. Sometimes we can, and historians may put too much emphasis on the particular individual and miss the processes and the institutional structure around the individual and all the dynamics there.

Each administration seems unique, and we can thus be led to look at the trees and not see the forest, or reverse that if you'd like. We've tried to look at this systematically. Barber tries. He tries to give this a systematic basis for examining the president by systematically evaluating their past. We try to provide a systematic interpretation by using comparable data across administrations, to try and arrive at, again, a systematic judgment of these individual occupants of the White House.
LAMB: You refer to General Eisenhower as a less active, but positive.
LAMB: In...
HINCKLEY: We're not using the term passive. Barber would have used the term passive. He would have called him -- or the term would be passive/positive.
LAMB: What made President Eisenhower less active...
HINCKLEY: Because...
LAMB: ...but positive.
HINCKLEY: ...he ranks low compared to our presidents in measures of domestic policy activity, foreign policy activity and other measures of activity.
LAMB: John Kennedy was active/positive.
LAMB: Why?
HINCKLEY: High in these measures of activity and high in certain popularity. Kennedy would more walk the tightrope of doing a lot of things actively but not letting them hurt his polls.
LAMB: Each of...
HINCKLEY: Perhaps as far as Truman.
LAMB: Each of your--as--and--and--and correct me if I'm wrong--each of your presidents were studied for the first 30 minutes, first 30 months of their presidencies?
BRACE: No. It was 48 months.
LAMB: The entire time.
HINCKLEY: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
BRACE: Right. Right.
LAMB: But some of them had two terms.
BRACE: Right.
HINCKLEY: Yeah. We talk about...
BRACE: We make a distinction between first and...
HINCKLEY: ...the two terms.
BRACE: ...second administrations.
HINCKLEY: But that ranking would be primarily on the first term, the first four years.
BRACE: Right. Right.
HINCKLEY: And of course, Ford didn't have that much time.
BRACE: See, the problem we have with making too great of generalizations about second terms is, we only had really three, and one of those was so anomalous as to yield it unusable. Richard Nixon's second term was so dominated by Watergate, you really can't make any useful comparisons. So really, when you're talking about second terms, you only have Eisenhower and Reagan to make an assertion about, and that doesn't provide any kind of pattern really for us to make any clear-cut judgments about what presidents do in their second terms.
LAMB: All right. Let's go on to Lyndon Johnson. You call him active/negative.
LAMB: You've mentioned it a little bit earlier. What were some of the negative things?
HINCKLEY: Well, for example, we know that giving speeches to the nation helps the president's popularity. Johnson is as low as one can get in certain periods of his administration--All right?--in giving speeches to the nation. As Johnson's polls fell, whereas some of the presidents would then have tried to address the public, maybe talk about the war or at least talk about something else, Johnson withdrew. Johnson talked less. Then of course, he had an unpopular war that was also hurting his polls, and he was not responding to that popularity problem at all.

So for a number of ways, I think Johnson comes out negative, by which we mean he was less interested in public opinion and public approval than some of the other presidents. Johnson, of course, is as active as one could get in domestic policy. Johnson's also the person, the president, who works--What is it?--20 hours a day, or 22 hours a day, you know.
LAMB: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
HINCKLEY: And was on the phone when he was eating lunch and having his--his nap. So there is--there--that's a very nice case of an active/negative, Johnson would be.
LAMB: All right. On Richard Nixon, you list him as mixed/negative.
HINCKLEY: Oh. Yeah, Nixon...
LAMB: What is that? What is...
HINCKLEY: Nixon is hard. Not only that he came in--sort of in the middle ranking, I think. Didn't he?
BRACE: On both--on both scales...
HINCKLEY: If I'm re--recalling that...
BRACE: He was mixed on both scales.
HINCKLEY: that situation.
BRACE: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
HINCKLEY: But then that he had--and other biographers have dealt with this situation with Nixon. This isn't off the wall. I mean, our--while we're trying to use our own analysis to categorize these presidents, others have talked about Nixon in this way too, I think, as negative, as being conflicted about perhaps public opinion goals, success.
LAMB: Were you surprised going in--I mean, you did a lot of analysis. When did you start looking at this data and say, `Oh, I didn't realize that was the way it was happening'?
HINCKLEY: The way it was going to work out?
LAMB: Yeah.
HINCKLEY: The thing that I found most intriguing, and it shows up in that table and other places, too, the vice presidents come out differently. The people who have achieved the presidency through vice presidency, whether through succession or election, but particularly succession and that was Truman, Johnson and Ford, look very different from the presidents who just simply won through the presidential selection process. They are your negatives, your Johnson, Ford and Truman.
BRACE: And they seem less attuned to public pressures...
BRACE: ...than the ones who came to office via the electoral process.
HINCKLEY: And they were not selected by the same process, one could say.
BRACE: And it would seem to suggest that people who are elected to the office are socialized, or at least there's a self-selection process leading us to have individuals in the office who are not like Harry Truman, who are keenly aware of public opinion, who to get to the White House had to be keenly aware of public opinion.
HINCKLEY: Rightly or wrongly. And we try to--in that chapter when we do rank our presidents and talk about their very great differences--and they have them--is point out that it's the public's decision really what kind of president they like. They may like a--an active/negative, a Truman kind of president, and think that is the kind of president the American people should have, or they may like a passive/positive president. That was the Eisenhower/Reagan model that doesn't do as much in some cases, but is high in popularity.
LAMB: Gerry Ford.
HINCKLEY: Well, one of our vice presidents, notice...
BRACE: That's right.
HINCKLEY: ...and doesn't he come out negative? Or maybe I'm wrong.
LAMB: Gerry Ford's active/negative.
HINCKLEY: Yeah. Just like Truman, right? That's--see this is the vice presidency kicking in here...
BRACE: Mm-hmm.
HINCKLEY: ...again. Which I find very intriguing. It does seem that our selection system is producing something that...
BRACE: It's creating certain types...
BRACE: ...of norms among presidents. And perhaps their great focus on approval, perhaps George Bush's seeming obsession with approval ratings and public opinion was part of how he got to be president. And maybe if we're asking the public to be less harsh and we're asking presidents to pay less attention, maybe we ought to think about what we put these people through before they become president of the United States.
HINCKLEY: And do we want that kind of leadership? It's a legitimate question. Do we want a public regarding leadership? Now in a democracy you certainly want that to some extent. People have to decide what the extent is--how far they want presidents to follow the leader, the leader in this case being the polls.
LAMB: Let me go back to this list. Two more presidents -- actually probably three. Jimmy Carter has the most different of all the listings. He is listed as mixed and mixed. And for our audience that may have just joined in this conversation, what are we talking about--mixed and mixed?
HINCKLEY: Well, by the various rankings we used, Carter came out in the middle. And middle in terms of activity. Almost a mean; almost an average president. This is worth saying a couple of words about. And almost an average president in popularity. Now if listeners are hearing this, they say, `Carter? We thought he was a very unpopular president. We thought this and that.' And to remind people that we look at Carter compared to other presidents and compared to the circumstances in his administration. And it's worth pointing out Carter is an average.
BRACE: We also noticed that Reagan is near at that same average, although we rank him somewhat differently in that chart. Reagan and Carter were both former governors, and they seemed to have an understanding of how active to be with their legislative agendas. And...
HINCKLEY: And they're also later in the sequence. Perhaps they're picking up.
BRACE: They're later in the sequence too, and they might be reflecting that. But I mean, we do see patterns. People who came to office in a manner other than being elected behave very similarly with regard to polls and with regard to their activity. Presidents who came there via governorships seem to have absorbed some behavioral norms that, once in the White House, they behaved similarly. And people just tuning in would say, `Carter and Reagan were similar? How that's ludicrous.' Well, actually they were in terms of the level of their activity and in how they expended their approval for accomplishing legislative goals.
LAMB: Would you automatically then transfer that to Bill Clinton as a former governor?
BRACE: Actually, I would.
LAMB: He was a governor.
BRACE: I actually would. I think he will understand that he should not get trapped too deeply in low approval and will not push a legislative agenda to the point, say, a Lyndon Johnson did. He's someone who's very astute about the expenditure, I think, of political capital. And I don't find him--I find him pragmatic, and I think he will push, but he won't push to the point of sacrificing his administration.
LAMB: You also talk about the number of positions a president takes with the Congress having an impact on how the population at large views them. And because we've had a president of opposite parties in this town for the last 12 years, there have been a lot more positions being taken. You want to explain that?
HINCKLEY: All right. Go ahead.
BRACE: Well, what we look at--we ask the question in one chapter. The question simply is: Does approval help a president win his way in Congress? In other words: Does that help them with the support score in Congress? And...
HINCKLEY: The overall s...
BRACE: ...overall support score in Congress. And we reasoned that there's two ways presidents could influence their support scores in Congress. One is to be very popular; the other is to be very active, take more positions on legislation. And indeed, in our analysis we find that the more popular you are, the more likely your success scores will be higher. Or the more active you are, the more likely you'll have high successes in Congress. In other words taking more positions. But the rub is that the more active you are, the more your approval is going to go down. And so presidents face a choice.

They can be relatively inactive vis-a-vis Congress and maintain a relatively high level of approval, but they're not going to win much in Congress. And in fact, this is the very pattern chosen by George Bush. Insider accounts tell us that they were not willing to push a dome, an aggressive domestic agenda because they feared it would upset the former president's approval rating. Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, took more positions than any other president in our data, and he was very successful in Congress. But it cost him at the polls. He was very aggressive in his legislative agenda.
LAMB: You--on this list here we showed, you have Ronald Reagan as less active/positive. What would you, if you were making this list out today with George Bush under there, what would you call him?
HINCKLEY: I don't know where, we'd have to look and see where Bush would rank in terms of the polls. He'd certainly be less active.
BRACE: One thing we note in the book, that Bush's popularity fluctuated more than any of our other presidents. He hit some of the highest highs, but he also hit some of the lower lows, not the lowest lows. And he had more month-to-month fluctuations than any other president.
LAMB: Let me stop you, because I want to contrast. Because you open up with the whole discussion about Harry Truman being 87 coming in, 23 going out.
HINCKLEY: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
BRACE: Right.
LAMB: George Bush coming in at--well, right after the Gulf War, at 91 percent...
LAMB: ...and then slipping all the way down into the 30s.
HINCKLEY: But opposite approaches to the polls perhaps.
LAMB: Yeah, and...
HINCKLEY: One who cared a lot about them and one who didn't care at all about them.
LAMB: How do you know that George Bush cared a lot about the polls?
HINCKLEY: We have a lot of anecdotal evidence about the place of the polls in the Bush White House, I think.
LAMB: Did they track them every day?
BRACE: Yeah.
HINCKLEY: Certainly. And...
BRACE: That's a new development.
LAMB: When did that start?
HINCKLEY: With the Reagan second term, I think.
BRACE: Yeah. Daily polls.
HINCKLEY: The Wirthlin Group and others who had worked for Reagan certainly in the second term. It may have happened before.
BRACE: Mm-hmm.
HINCKLEY: I mean, some presidents had private polls taken. I don't think they were daily.
BRACE: We went through...
HINCKLEY: They first time we hear about daily polls, I think is Reagan's second term. I could be wrong on that.
LAMB: Now we've just been through a year, for some people a year and a half--of campaigning. Do the people--both candidates, or all three major candidates running for office, did they track every day how the...
HINCKLEY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
BRACE: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: the public felt?
BRACE: Certainly.
LAMB: When did that start? Do you know?
BRACE: Tracking polls in campaigns?
HINCKLEY: Daily tracking polls?
LAMB: Daily tracking polls.
BRACE: I couldn't give you a precise date. I don't know. It would certainly have to have come after enormous amounts of resources were available, because it's very costly.
LAMB: Is this good or bad for government? Good or bad for the public?
HINCKLEY: I think, again, you're into that danger area that we're talking about in the book, in which the polls get reified. And the people, such as presidential candidates, react/overreact to them. If you're getting a president watching the blips on a poll graph and wondering if he should make this statement today because the poll went down or this statement the next day because the poll went up, you may have a little problem of leadership.
BRACE: George Bush was the first president to mention his polls, his approval rating, in his State of the Union address. We can see polls are dominating--not dominating, but coming to play a larger and larger role in our political discourse.
HINCKLEY: And other observers have pointed this all out.
BRACE: Helen Thomas this year, third debate, was given the opportunity to ask the last question after three long debates. Didn't ask about the economy. Didn't ask about health care. Didn't really ask about Iraq, B&L, anything. What did she ask about? `Mr. Bush, a year ago your approval was way up; now it's way down. What happened?' OK. That's a paraphrase. I don't want to misconstrue here. Polls have become an object of political discourse oftentimes displacing substantive issues that are of vital importance. And I think bringing them up in a debate is indicative of that.
HINCKLEY: Or a State of the Union address.
BRACE: Or a State of the Union address.
LAMB: Let me go back to something we talked about earlier about the media, the coverage of the campaign, the coverage of polls, the coverage of the presidents that you've seen. What the rub for you when you watch that? I mean, what makes you mad?
BRACE: In the most recent election?
LAMB: Well, it doesn't have to be, but when you see the way the press uses the polls.
HINCKLEY: I -- let me try this one. Right before the '92 election, when the polls began to, some people said, change for Bush; however, the polls were really simply changing their methodology. You were getting some polls reporting what the most likely voters--this had never been reported before. What got me mad was to see perhaps the range of editorial leading comments in newspapers, widely different, depending on--one newspaper would say, `Bush is narrowing the gap,' or someone said something else in a different direction. I don't care what partisan direction the headline was taking. All on a different methodology suggested by taking the most likely voters, when all through the year they'd simply been taking the people...
BRACE: Registered voters.
HINCKLEY: ...they asked the question to. Registered voters.
BRACE: That's right. One, a cynical person might reason that they were trying to sell more newspapers, because...
BRACE: ...if using the most likely voters is a good idea a week from the end of the campaign, why wasn't it a good idea two months before the end of the campaign? Why change that one week out? And then why add to it a dynamic element saying Bush is closing the gap. Well, he's closing the gap if you change the methodology. Would his gap have closed if you used the same methodology all along?
HINCKLEY: And that's polls leading the public...
BRACE: And if...
HINCKLEY: ...if the public reads the newspapers and thinks something is happening, when indeed it may not be happening.
BRACE: It was headlines. We surveyed a lot of newspapers that week and--and--and tried to see, and in numerous newspapers from around the country, that became the lead story. Became the lead story on many net--nightly network news programs: The gap's closing. Well, the gap closed simply because of a decision by a pollster and/or the editorial department at the newspapers carrying that to say that: Let's use this method rather than the old method. So it's...
LAMB: Let me ask you about some names I mentioned when we opened this thing up. One of them is Clinton Rossiter. And you talk about a famous book by Clinton Rossiter in 1956.
HINCKLEY: A kind of idealized--we would now think of it as an idealized view of the presidency. But a very influential book.
LAMB: Who--do you remember who it was?
HINCKLEY: Clinton Rossiter spoke about the different hats the president wore. And Rossiter's hats are still in all the American government textbooks. The president is the chief legislator; the president is the commander-in-chief; the president is the head of his party.
LAMB: Voice of the people.
HINCKLEY: The tribune of the people, that's right.
LAMB: World leader. Manager of prosperity.
HINCKLEY: That's right. And Rossiter was sort of bringing together and codifying this expanded presidency, probably since FDR.
LAMB: Do you know who he is? Or was? Or...
HINCKLEY: A very famous presidential scholar at Cornell. Actually, I worked with him.
LAMB: You did. Is he still alive?
HINCKLEY: No. No, he's not.
LAMB: And did you read Clinton Rossiter also? Is...
BRACE: Many years ago.
LAMB: I mean, does he--I guess what I wanted to ask is: How do these people become such important parts of our literature?
HINCKLEY: And he filtered into all the American government textbooks. I think most freshmen or sophomores would have read about the hats. They might not have read about Clinton Rossiter, but they all talked about tribune of the people and commander-in-chief and this and that.
LAMB: Has he proved to be right over the years?
BRACE: Well, I think he gave--again it goes back to my earlier point I was making about studying the presidency systematically. And Rossiter was one of the early writers to make generalizations about the office, rather than study it as individuals biographically and this is Lincoln, and this is Wilson, and instead talk about the possibilities of the office, its capabilities within the national governing framework. And I think we attribute that to Rossiter as one of the early voices...
BRACE: ...making these types of generalizations about the office. And that's why he's been so influential, I think, through time.
HINCKLEY: But it was an idealized view.
BRACE: Very idealized.
HINCKLEY: We would look back now and say Rossiter was giving the impression that the presidents have much more power than they do.
LAMB: Early in the book, you mention Richard Neustadt.
HINCKLEY: And then Neustadt comes along...
HINCKLEY: ...right after Rossiter's book and says, `Well, presidents don't really have that much power, do they?'
BRACE: They're faced with a choice.
HINCKLEY: `They're faced with a bureaucracy that they didn't appoint and can't get rid of; they're faced with a powerful Congress, one of the most powerful legislative institutions in the world, always has been. What is this about the president being so powerful?' And then Neustadt writes again a very influential book...
LAMB: Who is he?
HINCKLEY: He's a political scientist also.
BRACE: At Harvard University.
BRACE: Neustadt's famous quote, or assertion, is that presidential power is the power to persuade. And he believed that presidents wouldn't necessarily be powerful if they didn't persuade the public and if they didn't persuade the Beltway and those in Washington, that they'd probably be little more than caretakers in their administration. So contrasting that with Rossiter who idealized the office of having all these possibilities, Neustadt's telling us that it's not necessarily so, that the president has to pursue certain strategies if he wants to be powerful. And among those strategies...
HINCKLEY: Is public opinion.
BRACE: Yes. Public opinion.
BRACE: Mobilizing public opinion to persuade other governmental actors to do what the president wants them to do.
LAMB: Let me ask you--and I may be really off the mark here--but when you read in this book, your book, about James David Barber, he's at North Carolina?
BRACE: Mm-hmm. Duke.
LAMB: Duke.
BRACE: Duke.
LAMB: In North Carolina. Professor. And Clinton Rossiter a professor and Richard Neustadt a professor. And we have two professors here with us. Do you hope that someday, 25 years from now, that "Follow The Leader," this book by Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley, will have the same place in history? And if you do, or even if you don't, what would the place be in history?
HINCKLEY: No, I'd rather prefer that it would have an immediate impact, that people would read it, say, in the next three, four years, and begin to get more conscious about a very real political occurrence. That would be my own response.
BRACE: I think that's important. I would like to have it serve as a certain legacy in the study of the presidency and at least serve as a benchmark of trying to evaluate systematic patterns in the presidency. We're not the first to try this. We do some things that are new in here, and I think we're setting, hopefully, a foundation for future studies that will try to do systematic evaluations of the president, what they do in office and how they react to situations.
LAMB: What do you do that's new?
BRACE: Well, it gets into some of the technical details, but again the comparative basis of our analysis, looking at the patterns of approval across administrations. You were asking earlier what were we struck by. The day we were laying this out and found that there's this strong striking decay curve across administrations. Many people have talked about it, they have impressions of it, but nobody had ever really illustrated it clearly. It's unarguably there. Presidents have this common wave across administrations.
LAMB: When can we expect to see the Bill Clinton decay curve? Hit bottom?
BRACE: Hit bottom? It will be sometime in his third year.
HINCKLEY: Earlier.
BRACE: Earlier third year. And then he should start climbing out of it as likely opponents on the Republican side begin to emerge and people have someone to compare President Clinton with vs. an anticipated President Someone Else, the one in office, we believe, starts to look a little better. When you're president and you're not being compared against anyone, it's your second year and people are asking what kind of job you're doing, you're not being compared to anyone else. And in your third year in office, you might be compared with a likely alternative, and you start to look better.
LAMB: Is there any way to prevent the decay curve?
HINCKLEY: No. Not, if the expectations are too high to start with, if we have this notion that presidents should do all these things. We go through a campaign. How will you fix this? How will you help this? What will happen with the economy or health care or this issue or that issue? We build these expectations that presidents will do these things. As we begin to find that they won't or that they can only do them part way or that they're going to have to postpone some and try others.
LAMB: What other new methods? Other new techniques?
BRACE: Well, we do an event analysis to try and understand the timing of presidential activities: when presidents give speeches, when presidents take trips, when presidents take foreign trips. We also do a systematic Poisson regression analysis of foreign policy events.
LAMB: Wait a minute. What did you just say?
BRACE: It's a statistical technique to try and understand whether or not there are statistical patterns in the timing of presidential activities across administrations. In other words, are there any regularities in the timing of presidential trips? Are there any regularities in the use of force? Are there any regularities in the announcement of treaties and things like this? And we find some regularities.
LAMB: Let me, as a way of getting you-all to talk about this--assume there's somebody in the office saying, `I've never heard so much hooey in all my life. These professors have got their heads in statistics, and they aren't dealing with reality.' I'd ask both of you: What would you say to them? What--you know, what gives you the assurance that this--you know, this methodology you've worked out here matters?
BRACE: The first thing I'd say is, there's no reason the future has to be like the past. But what we've done is looked at the forest and tried to find patterns. And someone who might be coming to the White House brand-new will see a lot of trees, but might not see the forest. Now George Bush started to see the forest. He was sitting there with that comparative chart. They knew there were curves in presidential approval. They...
HINCKLEY: But they thought they could...
BRACE: They thought they could change that inevitable course. I would simply say that we've tried to stand back and look at all administrations, and that a political practitioner might be very familiar with Washington and very familiar with a single administration, and we wouldn't deny that that's important knowledge, but at the same time, we think it's useful to survey history, to survey the available data across presidents to see what's been going on that's systematic, that's part of the institution of the presidency.
LAMB: Anything to add?
HINCKLEY: I think also, once we compare them, another thing that's new is that we can begin to put the individuals in perspective. And the Carter example is a nice example. Carter's always been looked at alone, in isolation, as part of his circumstances. And I think it's important to begin to take presidents out of their circumstances, some presidents have good luck; some presidents have bad luck and to try to separate what the presidents are doing from their good or bad luck in office.
LAMB: Which president had the most...
HINCKLEY: We can actually answer that.
LAMB: The good--the best luck.
HINCKLEY: The best luck--statistically best luck, Dwight Eisenhower.
LAMB: Which president had the worst luck?
LAMB: Gerry Ford.
HINCKLEY: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Let's, just for the fun of it, say Bill Clinton calls the two of you to the Oval Office, says, `Bring your book, but also let's sit and talk about what you know from President Truman on.'
LAMB: `And tell me what I should do and not do and avoid doing based on...'
HINCKLEY: He's got to--if you--he's got to try to get the economy up.
BRACE: I would come--I would hit the ground running in the first hundred days with an economic plan that was likely to yield benefits by the end of the first term. And I'd be willing to weather what would be, no doubt, a storm in years two and three as the benefits of that program aren't yet showing and hold the course, wait it out. The newspapers will be wondering, `What's happened to the administration?' Many within the administration will, no doubt, say, `Do something.' But really, for effective public policy in terms of getting re-elected and, hopefully, to get the economy on a firmer grounding, it would be best if he took a four-year strategy. Ideally, we'd like presidents to take an eight-, 15- or 20-year economic strategy. I mean, the notion that we should be strategizing about how to rebuild our economy in a four-year cycle isn't exactly good, sound economic policy. The fact of the matter is, if we're realistic, we couldn't expect to advise Bill Clinton, `Look, take a 20-year plan here.'
BRACE: `Think in the long run and forget about your own re-election.'
HINCKLEY: For four years. Four years.
BRACE: Wouldn't happen for four years.
BRACE: So the realistic strategy is plan for the re-election.
HINCKLEY: Don't worry about that dip.
BRACE: That's right.
LAMB: What would you tell him about taking trips overseas?
HINCKLEY: Doesn't make much difference, so take them if you're conducting diplomacy you care about. Won't...
LAMB: Will it matter to his popularity?
HINCKLEY: Doesn't go up or down. Now on the domestic trips, which seems to go down, then the question is: If you want to do it, or you want to persuade some of those members of Congress out there, or you have reasons that you need to do it, then do it, but be aware it can have a little negative effect.
LAMB: All right. What about speeches? What would you tell him about Oval Office speeches? Addresses to the nation?
HINCKLEY: Probably do more, because for some reason this notion that presidents can only talk a certain number of times, I think everyone follows FDR--feels, well, FDR wouldn't talk more, so we shouldn't either.
BRACE: In Clinton's case, though, I recall the 1988 Democratic Convention, in which he nominated Dukakis, and we might warn him about the length of his speeches. He seemed to have a tendency at that point to speak too long.
LAMB: Didn't hurt him though.
BRACE: In 1988? Oh, in the long run, you're right. Although early in his campaign, many people brought that up, and it was an opportunity to do something positive, and I don't think it helped him.
LAMB: What would you tell him about press conferences? President Bush came in and had more press conferences than anybody in history.
BRACE: You know, it's interesting. There's anecdotal evidence from inside the White House that they found early on that people really liked the way Bush handled those press conferences, and focus groups. Not from surveys, but from focus groups. They thought he did a great job. And it might be in contrast to Reagan, who we will recall gave very few of them because he had a hard time with them. They were worried within the White House about what President Reagan might say. Bush's early press conferences were very good, very effective in terms of public opinion, and focus groups liked them, and that's why they did a lot of them.
LAMB: What would you tell him about military confrontation?
HINCKLEY: That's a long story. Want to start, Paul?
BRACE: There's two--we examined two types of military conflict. One are identified by--one set is identified by historians as rally events. And these are dramatic international crises where US interests have been threatened and where public--presidents enjoyed dramatic increases in their approval. In addition to this, there are a multitude of routine uses of forces that are not identified by historians, and what we seek to do is analyze the domestic determinants of whether or not a president will engage in the use of force, and we break it down into those two types.
HINCKLEY: It's a disturbing finding.
BRACE: What we find is that the routine use of force does bear some statistical relationship to a deteriorating domestic political situation and/or a weakened economy. And so the--the rule here is that we are more likely to engage in force internationally when the economy is bad or when there's a certain deterioration in a president's standing at home. On the other hand, we do not find that pattern when we look at those dramatic international events. Unfortunately, presidents might be looking at those rally events, thinking that they can bolster their approval at home, and engage in the use of force. Our evidence suggests that those routine are--uses of force do not help them at home.
LAMB: Barbara Hinckley, the president-to-be says to you, `I want to be a great president.'
LAMB: What would you tell him to do?
HINCKLEY: Then he's got to probably walk that tightrope a little bit. I think the modern presidents now all have to. And keep up his public approval as much as he needs it to do what he wants to do. And ignore it the rest of the time.
LAMB: But...
HINCKLEY: Go only so far.
LAMB: You suggest, though, that the great presidents weren't very popular.
HINCKLEY: No, I don't think we're willing to say one is more great than the other. Truman is held very highly by historians and was not popular. But we do want to stress that it's--there's these alternative kinds of presidents. And I think everyone has to decide what kind of president they want.
LAMB: What would you both tell the president about opinion polling and tracking polls on a day-to-day basis? Good idea?
HINCKLEY: I wouldn't watch them so much. That's what I'd tell the...
BRACE: I wouldn't either.
HINCKLEY: ...president.
BRACE: I would tell them...
HINCKLEY: Tune in every week or so.
BRACE: Or watch them, but watch them as deviations from the curve that we present in the book. We should send that book to the president and say, `If you get below this curve, you might want to worry. But otherwise, in a day-to-day basis, steer the course. You're going to have this decline. Don't obsess on the we--daily or weekly poll results, because they're not something that you should do--be building policy on. And your administration shouldn't be evaluated on the basis of these weekly reports.'
LAMB: The heads of the networks, the commercial television networks and the big newspapers and the wire services want you both to come in. And they say to you, `Tell us how we can do our job and be good citizens, cover the news but also be honest compared to what we've done in the past.' What would you tell them?
HINCKLEY: Again, take the poll results within the context, as we're writing it here in the book, of circumstances of the time, of what they should expect. Saying Bush had 91 percent popularity after the Gulf War is not news. So if they're really being responsible, it would hardly be reported. Perhaps just as a little paragraph somewhere in an article. It's to be expected that at that time the popularity would be high. Three months, four months from that time, that popularity will be down. And it's not because Bush did something right or did something wrong; it's just what you would expect. So to be more responsible to see these things against the circumstances and in comparison with the other presidents.
LAMB: What would you tell the...
HINCKLEY: Probably just take them less seriously, too.
LAMB: What would you tell the public again?
BRACE: It's interesting, because I've been on a number of call-in radio shows recently because of interest in the book and interest in polls, and a lot of people are very upset with polls. They think they're bad; they're distorting things and they're angry about them. And my answer is, it's a piece of information. I think, in following what Barbara says, newspapers are making too much out of them. I think they become lead stories on the nightly news. I think the president talking about them in his State of the Union address and that they've become the content of a discussion in the debates suggests that we've gone too far here. But on the other hand, you know, if you believe in the First Amendment, this is certainly not something that we should be challenged by. It's a piece of information. Use it as you'd like, but look at it critically. Look at it critically. And look at it in the context of other administrations at the same time; don't look at it in isolation.
LAMB: Do you have another book in mind that the two of you are going to come out with eventually?
HINCKLEY: We're still going along with some of these issues in here, for one thing.
BRACE: We're interested in public opinion and foreign policy, and we've talked about some ideas there...
BRACE: ...because there's some interesting findings in there.
LAMB: You both served as professors at New York University, the nation's largest private university--45,000 students. You now both work for state institutions--University of Illinois for Mr. Brace and...
HINCKLEY: I'm happy with my change.
LAMB: ...Purdue University. What's the difference in the atmosphere of a private school--large private urban school and a public school? Anything?
HINCKLEY: I like public schools. I taught a lot of years at Wisconsin. I like them a lot. I like, perhaps, their certain kind of commitment to public education. I think sometimes it brings in a more energetic group of colleagues or people around it. Private institutions can get stodgy maybe or too struck with their own position. I don't know.
BRACE: I'd agree with that. I think anyone at a public institution right now is feeling the fiscal crunch that's hitting all states, and many private institutions weren't as challenged by that, and aren't as challenged by that. I think public institutions are forced to evaluate themselves more regularly because they're spending taxpayer dollars, and a private institution doesn't have to if it doesn't want to. And I think that might account for what you sense as stodginess sometimes in a private institution.
LAMB: Here's what the book looks like. Professors Paul Brace and Barbara HINCKLEY. It's called "Follow The Leader: Opinion Polls and the Modern Presidents." Thank you very much for joining us.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1992. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.