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Richard A. Brody is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stanford University and the author of Assessing the President: The Media, Elite Opinion, and Public Support (Stanford University Press).

This article appeared in the November 16, 1998, edition of The Polling Report.


The Lewinsky Affair and Popular
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 President’s "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 performance.

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 Clinton’s 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 Nixon’s 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 Clinton’s 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 didn’t 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 television’s 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."

The President’s Character
Moreover, news coverage of the affair did affect the public’s evaluation of President Clinton. Judgments of the President’s 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 trustworthy.

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 Gallup’s 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 President’s perceived honesty and trustworthiness that suffered: The perceptions that the President has ". . . high personal moral and ethical standards" and that he "shares my [the respondent’s] 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 standards."

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 President’s honesty, trustworthiness and personal moral and ethical standards after being informed of the Lewinsky affair.

However, other important aspects of the public’s perception of the President were unaffected by news of his extramarital affair; the public’s view of President Clinton’s 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 Gallup’s 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% during 1998.

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.

Flawed, But Effective
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 public’s 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 Clinton’s 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 president.

. . . the judgment of Clinton as a person is largely irrelevant to the judgment of his performance as president.

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