Polls don't drive policies

Everyone wants to know the issue agenda. What issues will the lame-duck Congress attack? How will Republican House and Senate leaders reconcile different issue priorities for the next Congress? What are the key legislative goals of a second-term Bush administration?

The uninitiated may assume that public-opinion polls play a major role in answering questions like these. I think not.Everyone wants to know the issue agenda. What issues will the lame-duck Congress attack? How will Republican House and Senate leaders reconcile different issue priorities for the next Congress? What are the key legislative goals of a second-term Bush administration?

The uninitiated may assume that public-opinion polls play a major role in answering questions like these. I think not.

This conclusion was first suggested to me during my first year of graduate school.

Like other new doctoral students, I was charged with selecting a dissertation topic and choosing a faculty member to direct my research and analysis. I tentatively chose a topic, “The impact of public opinion on public policy,” and proceeded to ask my department’s best-known faculty member if he would become my major professor.

Nervous and naive, and unaware that his specialty in American politics was “elite theory,” I was astounded at his thundering response: “I’ll tell you what public opinion has to do with public policy — absolutely nothing!” He proceeded to let me know in kinder terms that he had no interest in advising a doctoral student with such weak insight into politics. I quickly retreated.

Later I found a professor to advise me who had even edited a set of essays on precisely the topic of public opinion’s impact on policy. But I never became convinced and eventually wrote a dissertation on “political cynicism and alienation.” I discovered myself what many Americans already knew, that most of our leaders aren’t terribly interested in public preferences.

To illustrate my point, I rounded up a series of polls that show overwhelming public support for a series of initiatives that have absolutely no chance of legislative passage. Many of these ideas will even have trouble finding serious sponsors in Congress.

Let’s start with some really big numbers. I discovered a national poll conducted last year by Virginia Commonwealth University that found that 94 percent of Americans oppose allowing couples to choose a baby’s genetic characteristics such as hair color or the risk of getting certain diseases. Though this poll would suggest that there would be no significant public opposition to a ban on genetic selection, I am not aware of any rush in that direction by legislators.

In a similar vein, Congress has not worked out a cloning policy. Polls conducted throughout 2001 consistently showed support for a ban on cloning at 85 percent or more. And in fact the U.S. House passed a ban that year that the White House was said to support. But the Senate didn’t concur, so we don’t yet have a ban even though public support is near-universal.

Abortion is yet another example. A CBS/New York Times poll taken in November found that 2 in 3 Americans (65 percent) want either stricter limits on abortion or outright prohibition of the practice. But given the recent difficulty in restricting even something as heinous as “partial-birth abortion,” you have to wonder whether Congress will have the “courage” needed to follow public opinion.

It’s not just moral and ethical preferences that get ignored. There are notable examples in health-related policy arenas. A poll taken by ABC News in July 2003 found that 85 percent of Americans feel that government should require labels on food saying whether it’s from farm animals that have been fed antibiotics or hormones. We’re still waiting on that reform.

And, more recently, numerous polls have shown that more than 7 in 10 Americans favor allowing Americans to buy cheaper prescription drugs in Canada for reimportation here. That change remains “under consideration.”

Tax policies also reflect an independence from public opinion. A Gallup poll taken in April of this year found that 63 percent of Americans feel that upper-income people pay too little in taxes. Similarly, 69 percent said corporations pay too little in taxes.

But none of us are anticipating higher taxes on the rich or businesses, are we?

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.