The Second Face of the Public Presidency: Presidential Polling and the Shift from Policy to Personality Polling

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Abstract

Scholars have tended to define the “public presidency” as facing outward—the president talks and travels to the country. What makes the “public presidency” public, however, is not only its outward oriented activities but also its systematic monitoring of the attitudes of the mass public. This article describes and explains two significant changes over time in the presidential polling of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan based on extensive research in presidential libraries: an increase in the amount of presidential polling, and a shift from polling the public's policy preferences to polling its non-policy evaluations related to personal image and appeal—a potentially potent basis for appealing to voters. We trace the changing extent and purpose of presidential polling to the evolution of the American political system and its strategic incentives, survey research capability, and political learning. We conclude by suggesting that the development of the public-talking and the public-listening dimensions of the presidency pose potentially significant threats to American democracy.

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