Support for President Clinton
by Richard A. Brody
Judging by all available indicators, President
Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky has had a very selective effect on
aggregate public opinion. Over the past nine months the American public has
substantially changed its view of Clinton as an individual but barely
readjusted its perception of President Clinton as a political leader. In the
latter respect for example, Americans’ evaluations of how President Clinton
is ". . . handling his job as president" are remarkably stable during 1998.
Data from eleven major polling organizations surveying in 194 separate
national samples over the first ten months of 1998—the period following the
revelation of the affair between the President and Ms. Lewinsky—show that
more than six Americans in ten offer a positive assessment of the
President’s job performance.
Given saturation coverage of the affair and a
rising tide of criticism of President Clinton by the media and political opinion leaders,
we are hard put to account for this pattern of support. Most explanations of the dynamics
of public opinion would lead us to expect a negative public judgment of the
Presidents "handling of his job." Presidents often get boosts in approval
from major international crises but there has been, in this period, no such crisis.
Without a rally to offset the Lewinsky affair, we have to rethink our standard
explanations of what the public is responding to when it forms opinions of presidential
The Lewinsky affair was the major news
story of the period and by no sleight of hand can this news be characterized as anything
but bad news from President Clintons perspective. In general, we expect bad news to
erode support for the president but no erosion has taken place. It is not that the
American people ignore scandal when judging a president. On the surface, this scandal
bears a strong resemblance to Watergate but, in contrast to the Lewinsky affair, the news
stories flowing from Watergate had a profound and negative effect on assessments of
President Nixons handling of the job.
There is no gainsaying the fact that the
Lewinsky affair has produced a large volume of negative news which should have reduced
Clintons support. Why did conventional wisdom and past research fail in this case?
What does this tell us about how the American public forms its opinions?
Logically it is possible that public opinion
didnt respond to the Lewinsky affair because it was unaware of it. Possible, yes,
but it does not apply in this case. The public was fully aware of the scandal. The
information was out there: The story got blanket coverage in all the mainstream newspapers
as well as in supermarket tabloids, it was prominently covered on network
televisions national, nightly news broadcasts as well as on tabloid television
programs, and it was discussed endlessly on web sites and talk radio. And the information
was attended to: Since last January, according to Gallup reports, more than eight
Americans in ten followed ". . . news about the [allegations of a presidential
extramarital] affair" "very" or "somewhat closely."
Moreover, news coverage of the affair did affect the publics evaluation of President
Clinton. Judgments of the Presidents character and other personal qualities suffered
substantially. The Washington Post/ABC News polls over the past eight months evince
a decline in the fraction of the American public willing to characterize President Clinton
as "honest and trustworthy." In the Post/ABC September 13, 1998 poll,
three-quarters of the American public said that the President was not honest and
The decline in the perception of the President
as "honest and trustworthy," revealed by the Gallup Poll, is less pronounced
than in the Post/ABC Poll, but there is no mistaking its presence. From January 23,
1998 to August 23, 1998, the percentage of Gallups samples offering the opinion that
"honesty and trustworthiness" were qualities that did not apply to
President Clinton increased ten percentage points, from 57% to 67%.
It was not just the Presidents perceived
honesty and trustworthiness that suffered: The perceptions that the President has ".
. . high personal moral and ethical standards" and that he "shares my [the
respondents] values" suffered the same fate. At the end of August 1998, more
than 60% of the sample told the Gallup Poll that President Clinton did not share their
values; the September 13, 1998 Washington Post/ABC News Poll found that 77% of the
public rejected the notion that the President had "high personal and ethical
It is reasonable to assume that the decline in
the perception that President Clinton was worthy of trust is linked to the Lewinsky affair
and the coverage it received. The polling data indicate that the public changed its
opinion of the Presidents honesty, trustworthiness and personal moral and ethical
standards after being informed of the Lewinsky affair.
However, other important aspects of the
publics perception of the President were unaffected by news of his extramarital
affair; the publics view of President Clintons compassion and strength of
leadership were not eroded in the wake of the Lewinsky news stories: Both Gallup and the
Post/ABC News polls, during 1998, record small, statistically insignificant, increases
in the perception that President Clinton "cares about" [Gallup] or
"understands" [Post/ABC] the needs [Gallup] or problems [Post/ABC]
of "people like me."
The percentage responding "yes" to
Gallups asking whether the President ". . . cares about the needs of people
like you" averaged 60.7% before 1998 and 62.0% during 1998. The "yes"
response to the Post/ABC inquiring whether President Clinton ". . .
understands the problems of people like you" averaged 54.9% before 1998 and 59.86%
Remarkably, after the story broke, half again
as many Americans perceived President Clinton as a "strong leader." In the six
polls taken between 1994 and 1998 an average of 43% of the public said they thought the
President was a "strong leader"; in the six polls taken during 1998 that figure
increased to 63.67%. Of course, the Lewinsky affair did not cause the President to be seen
as a strong, compassionate leader. What these opinion data suggest is that the public is
capable of differentiating the President as a person and as a political leader. Further
the polls suggest that different information is used in reaching the two judgments.
Many members of the public may wish that President Clinton was a better person and a
better moral role model, but his shortcomings in those respects do not prevent the public
from expressing substantial satisfaction with his effectiveness, skill, understanding,
compassion, and success as a political leader. These are likely to be responses to the
strength of the economy and to foreign policy successes in areas such as Northern Ireland,
the Balkans, and the Middle East. In other words, the sort of information that has been
found to influence the judgment of the success or failure of every president since World
War II also affects perceptions of President Clinton.
This does not mean that responses to the
presidential "approval" question are, as some have suggested, an inconsequential
"feel good" response to the economy. The sources of this judgment are no
different for President Clinton than for previous presidents. It appears, however, that
the judgment of Clinton as a person is largely irrelevant to the judgment of his
performance as president.
Indeed, a large fraction of the public has
resisted efforts to convert the Lewinsky affair into a politically consequential matter.
Consider for example, the publics persistent unwillingness to see the affair as an
impeachable offense. We do not know whether or not this makes Bill Clinton unique;
previous presidents have not so completely propelled their personal behavior onto the
public stage. President Clintons personal behavior is, of course, very much on
public view but it does not seem relevant to the way he is seen to be handling his job as