Politicized Democracy: The Nixon Presidency and the Rise of Public Opinion Polling in American Politics

Nevin, Mark David, Department of History, University of Virginia
Balogh, Brian, Department of History, University of Virginia

Politicized Democracy: The Nixon Presidency and the Rise of Public Opinion Polling in American Politics investigates the growth, institutionalization, and legitimization of public opinion polling during the presidency of Richard Nixon. Nixon was not the first president to use polls, but it was Nixon who transformed polling into a crucial instrument of presidential governance. Having ascended to the Oval Office at a time of declining executive authority and growing demands for more public involvement in governmental decision making, Nixon developed an unrivalled polling and poll-related public relations capability that enabled him to enhance presidential power at the same time that he championed democratic choice. Faced with a Democratic Congress and an increasingly powerful and adversarial Washington press corps, Nixon routinely went over the heads of Washington elites to win public support for his administration and his policy agenda. Nixon used polls to combat media criticism and to pressure Congress to support his policies. Although Nixon viewed polls as strategic and tactical tools for achieving his political goals, not as constraints on or guides to future presidential action, he promoted polls as the true vox populi. In an era when the news media and other governing institutions came to be seen as elitist and unrepresentative, Nixon used polls to tap cherished democratic ideals and position the president as the spokesman for the common man. Although polling expertise gave Nixon an advantage over his political adversaries at a time when polls were rarely used and poorly understood, Nixon's decision to tie his political fortunes so closely to the ii vicissitudes of public opinion was a risky one. As knowledge of polls increased and other political interests, most importantly the news media, developed their own polling capabilities, Nixon lost his advantage in this esoteric field. Ironically, it was plummeting approval ratings, as a result of Watergate, that drove him from office.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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