Opinion Polls' Lag Time May Benefit Clinton
By Ronald D. Elving, CQ Staff Writer
President Clinton has survived the first two weeks of his latest
scandal in remarkably fine fettle, particularly if you measure political
health by public opinion polls.
Almost daily soundings by the nation's leading pollsters have yet to
reveal erosion of the president's peaks of approval, which have flirted
with 70 percent for the first time in his presidency.
No one has an adequate explanation for why the president is doing so
well in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky furor. But it is clear that the
White House regards these vertiginous heights of popularity as the
president's best defense -- or at least preferable to any he might offer in
an open news conference. The polls are the implicit justification for a
strategy of stonewalling that former President Richard M. Nixon himself
might have admired.
While the Lewinsky controversy may never rise to the same level, it is
worth remembering that Watergate, as a case against a presidency, was not
built in a day, and the decision of most Americans to abandon their support
of Nixon was not made overnight.
Shafts of light fell on Nixon's dark side in June 1972, when burglars
were caught bugging the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the
Watergate hotel-office complex. The few newspeople who went after the story
began piecing it together that summer and fall: the program of dirty tricks
and the illegal cash financing, the efforts to silence potential witnesses
and shield the president.
While the revelations accumulated, the rest of the country tuned out.
That November, Nixon carried 49 states in winning re-election. More than
two months later, as the first Watergate defendants were going to court in
January 1973, Nixon's numbers in the Gallup Poll were among the most robust
of his presidency: 68 percent approval to 25 percent disapproval (a near
match with Clinton's figures for late January 1998).
Of course, that was before Nixon began talking about invoking executive
privilege to prevent White House aides from testifying about an alleged
cover-up. When that key phrase, "executive privilege," became part of the
discussion, Nixon's numbers started their descent.
In February, the Senate voted 70-0 to empanel an investigating
committee of its own. Nixon's approval rating in the first week of April
stood at 54 percent in the Gallup Poll. Most Americans were still
Even after the April 30 speech in which Nixon announced the resignation
of his closest aides, many Republicans continued to rally around the
president. The Senate Republican leader, Hugh C. Scott of Pennsylvania,
said the speech had proved that the president was "determined to see this
affair thoroughly cleaned up." The governor of California, Ronald Reagan,
said the Watergate bugging had been illegal but that "criminal" was too
harsh a term because the convicted burglars were "not criminals at
That same month, Republican state party chairmen meeting in Chicago
adopted a resolution blaming "a few overzealous individuals" for Watergate
and lending unequivocal support to the president. Vice President Spiro T.
Agnew accused the press of using "hearsay" and other tactics that were "a
very short jump from McCarthyism." The same comparison was picked up by the
man who had succeeded McCarthy in the Senate, Democrat William Proxmire of
Wisconsin, who said the media had been "grossly unfair" to Nixon.
By then, however, the bleeding in the Gallup Poll had dropped Nixon to
just 48 percent approval in the first week of May -- a drop of 20
percentage points since January. And that rating would keep on falling
through the 25 percent level before Nixon's resignation in August 1974.
Why are Clinton's public numbers so good? It is not enough to say that
people are happy with peace and prosperity. That might explain Clinton's
approval ratings prior to the Lewinsky case, but not the substantial
increase in approval since.
Surely some of the bump came from the State of the Union speech, a
10-strike in substance and style that forced grudging admiration from
sullen Republicans and nervous Democrats alike. Few politicians in any era
could have borne the pressure at that rostrum that night and used the
moment to such advantage.
But is that enough explanation? Or has Clinton benefited from a
rallying of disparate individuals who want to send a message to someone
other than the president at this particular moment? Poll respondents may be
willing to side with the president for the time being as a way to register
their dismay with the entire spectacle -- including the media's role.
Just as the initial analysis of the Lewinsky case assumed too much
would happen too fast, the pendulum may now have swung too far toward
predictions that the matter will be dismissed. And when the White House
starts talking about executive privilege, keep a weather eye on those
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.