The Poll-arization of Politics

May 25, 2011

Public opinion polling is a critical aspect of the political process.  Campaigns leverage internal polls to influence candidate messaging and advertisements.  News organizations leverage polls to develop headlines and questions for elected officials during shows.  Political parties use carefully scripted polls to craft attack messages against opponents or reinforce core ideals.  But are there too many polls?  And do both media and elected officials overuse polls when discussing and crafting legislative initiatives?

Technological advances have exponentially increased the speed with which polls are taken and distributed.  While polls previously involved time consuming phone calls and hand-written calculations, they are much more cost-efficient and easier to conduct with the Internet, robo-calls, and easy-to-use statistical programs.  In addition, opinion polling previously revolved around major national debates and upcoming elections.  Now any issue that garners even a glimpse of national media attention will have a poll wrapped around it within 24 hours.

Anyone who has taken even one political science course understands the ways in which pollsters can manipulate poll results.  The phrasing of questions and the order in which questions are asked significantly influence results.   When news organizations discuss polls over the air, rarely do they discuss how the questions were worded, the order in which they were worded, the sample size of the poll, or the statistical confidence.  Most importantly for every poll issued, an opponent – either a candidate or an advocacy group – can develop a competing poll and skew its results in order to support their position.  This renders objective polls meaningless.

In addition, opponents of legislative initiatives, whether originated from the right or the left, love to attack legislation on the grounds that it lacks a mandate from the American public.  But it is important to remember that America is not a democracy in its purest sense, and that was on purpose.

James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution, said it best in Federalist #10:

Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Our founding fathers never intended on having elected officials legislate based on the day-to-day whims of their constituents.  Certainly they can, and should, listen to constituent opinions at town halls or from office contacts, but legislation needs to be based on the public’s best interests in the long-run.  And since Members of Congress and their staffs are often the most informed about the details and implications of pending legislation, they are entrusted to make difficult decisions, whether popular at that moment or not.

The media needs to spend more time informing the public on the specifics of legislation, instead of regurgitating meaningless poll numbers that only incite emotion.  While poll numbers help ratings, and score political points, they erode intelligent debate and cripple our legislative process.

Editor Note:  Please note this article is in no way a reaction to current legislation in either chamber.  This article is analyzing an aggregation of legislative initiatives over many years.


The Power of the Bully Pulpit

April 19, 2011

“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” – Theodore Roosevelt[i]

President Theodore Roosevelt poignantly coined the phrase “bully pulpit” to describe the president’s ability to leverage his stature in order to dominate media messaging and push a specific agenda. Rooseveltwas a master at manipulating media, much to the consternation of his political opponents.  He was known to give insider tips to reporters who responded with favorable stories.  In addition, his first State of the Union Address, known as the Message to Congress back then, was nearly 20,000 words long or approximately three times longer than President Obama’s State of theUnionin January 2011.

Franklin Roosevelt continued the family tradition of leveraging the bully pulpit for political advantage.  He successfully coerced the media to photograph him in certain ways to mitigate public knowledge of his paralysis and simultaneously charmed them with weekly off-the-record question and answer sessions.

Even in our present day, media saturated society, the power of the presidential bully pulpit still resonates.  Its influence was never clearer than during the final days leading up to the expiration of the FY11 continuing resolution in early April.  Prior to April 1, Obama seemingly stayed above the fray of Congressional budget negotiations.  But beginning April 4, with the launch of his reelection campaign, Obama leveraged his position to establish himself as a mediating voice in an increasingly acrimonious debate.

In order to measure media influence, we studied the amount of Google News hits from April 4-13 for Obama, House Speaker John Boehner, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – the four most influential voices during budget negotiations.  Obama dominated the airways with an average of 69,330 Google news hits per day.  This is more than twice as much as John Boehner (26,790) and Paul Ryan (26,500), and approximately four times greater than Harry Reid (17,790).

Despite Chairman Ryan unveiling a House Republican budget plan on April 5, the president still received more national media attention.  When Obama unveiled his own long-term budget plan on April 13, Boehner was unable to garner media interest in a press conference he scheduled approximately one hour before the president’s speech.

The advent of social media and proliferation of alternative news sources has done nothing to mitigate the power of the bully pulpit.  Similar to presidents before, Obama was able to leverage his position to dictate the narrative during budget negotiations.  In addition, he continued to set the tone for future budget talks on April 13 with his blistering rebuke of Chairman Ryan’s plan while simultaneously proposing his own alternative.

It is important to remember that the bully pulpit is only as powerful as the president wants it to be.  The president is always capable of setting the tone for debate, but sitting idle on the sidelines can lead to alternative messages spinning out of control.  This was never more apparent than during the early days of the health care reform debate in 2009, when accusations of socialism and death panels filled the airways while the Senate dragged negotiations along for months.

This time around, President Obama certainly took a page from his predecessors.  It will be interesting to see how he leverages his pulpit when Congress returns in May and the debt ceiling takes center stage.

Launching a Campaign via Video

April 6, 2011

Three days.  Three important Democratic campaign announcements.  One method.

Campaign 2012 launched into full swing starting April 2 when Congressman Martin Heinrich (D-NM) announced his candidacy to replace the retiring Senator Jeff Bingaman as a U.S. Senator from New Mexico.  Two days later, Americans began their work week with the fully expected announcement from President Barack Obama that he is seeking a second term as President of the United States.  The deluge of Democratic candidate news continued on April 5 when Tim Kaine, former Virginia Governor and current Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, announced his candidacy to replace the retiring Senator Jim Webb as a U.S. Senator from Virginia.

While the races are different, all three candidates eschewed the old methods of announcing a candidacy – such as a press release or press conference – in favor of an approximately two-minute homemade video launched via the Web and social media.

Congressman Heinrich portrayed his family life and illustrated how his upbringing and middle class values make him the ideal candidate to fight for New Mexican working families.  The video was simultaneously launched on his campaign website and Facebook page.

President Obama utilized his reelection campaign introductory video to reenergize the grassroots activism that launched him into the White House.  The video interviews Obama supporters from all over America describing why they support the President and the importance of being involved in the political process.  The video was launched via social media and on the President’s reelection website.

Tim Kaine made his long-awaited campaign announcement by highlighting his work as a city councilman, mayor of Richmond, and Governor of Virginia.  He articulated the achievements Virginia has made in the last two decades to attract business and grow economically while remaining fiscally solvent.  The announcement was posted on Kaine’s campaign website, with a separate Spanish-language version.

These videos represent how candidates are utilizing social media and online channels to define their campaign message and illicit early campaign supporters, volunteers, and donors.  Video announcements allow candidates to easily build an online database and ensure maximum local and national news coverage without the expense or logistical challenges that stem from campaign rallies.

Leveraging Website Statistics

March 30, 2011

It is always difficult to measure the effectiveness of media campaigns.  Traditionally, staffs have counted media clips or calculated cable news ratings when a Member of Congress partakes in an interview.  While these methods produce a snapshot of exposure for a particular initiative, they do not present the whole picture and are not entirely quantifiable.  Fortunately, the Web offers a host of new methods for communications professionals to evaluate messaging efficacy.

Congressional websites are in many ways the first impression Members of Congress display toward constituents.  In addition, they can be a calculator to gauge the strength of communications campaigns.  Staffers can measure daily website unique visitors and analyze changes when new initiatives are introduced.

For instance, if the communications director decides to emphasize online and television appearances as opposed to radio and newspapers, he or she can measure the new campaign’s success by quantifying website visitors.  Other online measurement tools include Member Wikipedia page views, Facebook impressions, and Twitter retweets.

If a Member introduces a new bill or a scandal erupts, citizens will invariably scour the Internet for more information.  For instance, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) came under scrutiny recently for admitting she failed to pay property taxes on her private plane.  On March 22, the day the story broke, Senator McCaskill’s Wikipedia page received ten times more visitors than an average day, according to  In addition, she had an exponential increase in her Twitter following, which now contains more than 50,000 followers.

Web tools give Members of Congress more avenues to measure the effectiveness of legislative and communications campaigns.  These statistics can then be leveraged to make decisions on what legislative initiatives to pursue, what media outlets pitch, and how best to allocate a Member’s limited time – optimizing office operational efficiency.


Internet Altering Political Media Priorities

March 20, 2011

A new survey by the Pew Research Center demonstrates the Internet’s emerging influence on politics and media.  While it is no surprise the Internet is affecting how politicians communicate, some of the survey’s results are striking and may force Members of Congress and candidates to adapt new media policies even quicker than expected.

During the 2010 campaign season, 54 percent of all American adults went online to get news or information regarding campaigns, according to the Pew survey.  Online initiatives are categorized as obtaining political news online, going online to take part in specific political activities, or leveraging Twitter or social media sites for political purposes.

The Internet’s emergence is even starker when comparing statistics to past surveys.  People watching campaign-related videos online jumped from 19 percent in 2006 to 31 percent in 2010.  In addition, only 16 percent of adult Internet users utilized social media sites in 2006, while 60 percent did in 2010.  Lastly, 24 percent of adults got a majority of their campaign news from the Internet, a three-fold increase from 2002.  Adults ages 18-49 leveraged the Internet more than newspapers and radio to obtain political news during the 2010 elections.

Another Pew Research Center study, examining how people obtain local news and information, continues to demonstrate media’s extraordinary transformation.  The “How Mobile Devices are Changing Community Information Environments” study finds that 47 percent of American adults report they have received some local news and information from their cellphone or tablet device.

Pew’s statistics demonstrate the need for political press professionals to critically evaluate their media priorities.  As radio and newspapers succumb to the rise of Internet news sources, blog interviews and online chats with supporters may take precedence over radio interviews and Sunday editorial columns.  Politicians will have to evaluate their local media to determine the best avenue to reach constituents, but must ensure Internet-based outlets are part of the equation.

The Missing Art of the Lower Third

February 19, 2011

Members of Congress are increasingly posting videos on YouTube and other social media channels, a phenomenon we have highlighted extensively in previous posts.  But many Members are missing valuable opportunities to further enhance their video quality and ensure their primary messages resonate.

As an example, here is a recent video from Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) questioning Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

In a seven minute video, Senator Sanders highlights many causes for this country’s current budgetary deficit.  The Senator offers many poignant points, including ways in which he worked to stem the deficit, but because the video is so long, viewers may miss some of the speech’s key points.  This is where video graphics, particularly a lower third, can help.

Now those unfamiliar with video and advertising may be asking what a lower third is.  Understandable, as I had no clue until leveraging them extensively for advertisements when I was working at Ohio University.

Above is a press conference clip, telecast on MSNBC, involving House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) discussing a meeting with President Barack Obama.  The lower third is the graphic underneath the Majority Leader with the header “developing now”.  You will see lower thirds routinely in advertising and news.

Lower thirds are easy to program and widely effective.  Considering many Congressional offices use Adobe Premiere Pro to create videos, the software offers dozens of premade templates that new media directors can easily edit to fit within the office’s overall design theme.  When an office records a Member’s floor speech, it can include information such as the Member’s website URL, speech highlights, additional facts to reinforce the speech’s content, information about a Member’s e-mail newsletter, and much more.

It can be hard to capture a constituent’s attention for a full five minute floor speech, or eight hours as Senator Sanders demonstrated back in December.  Video graphics are an easy and cost effective mechanism to accentuate messaging and drive viewers to other communications resources.  In addition, stylish video graphics will ensure viewers continue to tune in and enhance the probability they will forward video links to friends.

Political Polarization and Social Media

January 13, 2011

Since the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and bystanders in Tucson, politicians, citizens, and the media have immediately and emphatically brought attention to the proliferation of extreme rhetoric in our country’s political discourse.  People from all sides of the political spectrum decry the increase in polarization that has taken shape over the last twenty years.  I even spoke to a former U.S. Senator recently who told me he would have no interest serving in today’s political environment.

While certainly not the only cause, it is difficult to deny the impact the Internet, Web, and social media has had on the increase of extreme rhetoric in politics.  In a recent post, “The Power of Online Political News”, we quoted Eric Schmidt, CEO, Google who said the Web will allow people to “miscommunicate even louder” and is “as likely to make them more extremist as it is to make them more insightful.” [1] John McWhorter wrote for NPR that “the actual cause of this new national temper is technology and its intersection with how language is used.”  He adds “it is no accident that the shrillness of political conversation has increased just as broadband and YouTube have become staples of American life.”[2] This website has even gone out of its way to extol the ability of online communications to “incite supporter fervor.”

It would be hard to find someone who wishes for a détente between Republicans and Democrats more than myself.  I fondly remember the political climate of the 1980’s, when my father served as a Senate staffer.  While the two political parties disagreed on many issues, there was always an element of respect, with President Ronald Reagan writing in his memories that he and House Speaker Tip O’Neill were friends after 6:00 p.m.

But as we have noted on this website, in today’s saturated media climate, it is typically the extremes that receive the most attention.  Even yesterday, the day when mourners gathered in Tucson to honor victims of the shooting, Sarah Palin received a deluge of media attention for her online video in which she used the phrase ‘blood libel.’  And considering the need for Members of Congress to utilize social media in order to expound their messaging, extreme political discourse is going to persist in our society.

Political polarization is nothing new in America.  Study the Presidential elections of 1800 and 1828 if you want to see political mudslinging at its apex.  But in today’s 24/7, instant news environment, every word is magnified and dissected.  This places an extra onus on politicians to ensure their rhetoric inspires as opposed to vilifies.  There is nothing wrong with political competition, and social media is a wonderful medium for that, but it is essential to maintain civility in the process.