Poll-itics as usual

A Republican National Committee flack gets defensive -- and evasive -- as reporters try to pin down how much President Bush spends on pollsters.

By Joshua Micah Marshall
Published April 5, 2002 11:22PM (EST)

The Bush White House is being accused of being almost as addicted to polls as the Clinton White House was, and the new revelations have the spinmeisters at the Republican National Committee engaging in a fit of what Republicans usually deride as Clintonian double-talk and obfuscation.

An article by Washington Monthly's Joshua Green claims that while Bush's main pollsters billed $346,000 in 2001, the total bill for White House polling was "closer to $1 million." The story was picked up Wednesday by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who repeated the "closer to $1 million" estimate.

"The Bush White House," wrote Dowd, "is giving the Clinton White House a run for its polling money. Karl Rove ... devours polls as rapaciously as Dick Morris."

That didn't go over well with Jim Dyke of the RNC, who promptly called Green to give him a piece of his mind. Dyke was pissed, Green later told Salon, and questioned where Green came up with such a figure. Green said the estimate came from conversations with GOP sources who were unwilling to provide a precise figure. If Dyke disputed Green's numbers, Green asked Dyke to provide the actual figure.

"It's $731,000," Green recalls Dyke telling him over the phone. "I was like, 'Uh-huh, and isn't that a lot closer to $1 million than $346,000?'" That ended the conversation.

But when Salon contacted Dyke two hours later, the $731,000 figure was apparently, as Richard Nixon's press secretary Ron Ziegler used to say, "no longer operative."

In recent presidencies it has become customary for the White House to run its polling operation through its party committee, the RNC or the DNC. Bill Clinton's main pollster in the late 1990s was Mark Penn, though Penn actually got paid by the DNC. But Dyke refused to concede that any of the RNC-funded polling was done for the White House. All Dyke would say was that there was a certain portion of the RNC's polling that "the White House might or might not have been interested in" and that that category of polling billed out at a mere $336,000. When I asked Dyke what that meant, he said these were polls "which may or may not have included a question that the White House may have been interested in."

Under persistent and sometimes comical questioning, it eventually emerged that Dyke's "might or might not" category referred to national polls as opposed to ones that focused on one region or state. Non-nationwide polls didn't count as polls that the White House "might or might not have been interested in." In other words, reasoned Dyke, when President Bush's pollster Jan van Lohuizen does a poll of Michigan or Pennsylvania, that's not a White House poll.

When I asked Dyke why he had told Green that the total cost of White House polling amounted to $731,000, he insisted that Green must have misunderstood (Green later said that was "nonsense"). That was the price of all the polling conducted by the RNC in 2001. Only not quite ... A few minutes later Dyke said that total RNC polling was slightly more than $731,000. When I asked whether it was still less than $800,000, Dyke refused to say.

Less than $1 million? No dice.

Less than $1.5 million? Dyke still wouldn't say.

By late Thursday afternoon, Dyke told Salon, the RNC still had not completed a tabulation of how much money it had spent on all polling in 2001. Nor could it stop hedging on whether non-national polls counted as White House polls. After a drawn-out conversation late Thursday afternoon, I asked Dyke if it was true that the White House "had no role in shaping or structuring or consulting on the [RNC's] non-national polls." Dyke said, "That's my understanding." But when I repeated the statement back to him, Dyke began to have second thoughts. "When you say 'consulting,' that's pretty broad," he said. When I offered to drop the word "consulting," he said, "Let me just make a phone call and I'll call you back." Dyke called back an hour later and said the White House was "not involved with [the RNC's] state polling" -- even the polls done by Bush's pollster van Lohuizen. Whether or not that's true, one thing seems certain. If the Clintonian addiction to polling is already gripping the Bush White House, that telltale symptom -- the inability to know what the definition of "is" is -- doesn't seem far behind.

Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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