The fact that presidents utilize opinion research is not news. In 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt requested that Eugene Meyer, publisher of the Washington Post, ask George Gallup to conduct a poll to reveal Americans' views toward U.S. involvement in the war in Europe and to report his findings back to the White House.1 Since then, presidents of both major parties have consulted polls in varying degrees and for differing purposes. Harry Truman was not interested in polls.2 Eisenhower was intrigued by polls but did not commit full-time resources to conduct opinion research within the White House.3 Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro note that, "Starting with John Kennedy, however, the White House's sensitivity to public opinion became an enduring institutional characteristic of the modern presidency."4 Lyndon Johnson attacked and leaked polls and also used personal relationships with pollsters to influence their findings.5 "In the Nixon administration," according to Diane Heith, "public opinion data was both tightly controlled and publicly displayed."6 Ford continued to control polling information, choosing to use it privately rather than publicly. Jimmy Carter personally parceled out polling information to his advisors who were not well versed in public opinion analysis and thus often misused data in decision-making.7 Ronald Reagan's vast use of polls drew criticism from those who felt his presidency was little more than a public relations show orchestrated by Richard Wirthlin and Michael Deaver. George Bush was thought not to use polls nearly as much as his predecessor while it was assumed that Bill Clinton lived by them. George W. Bush's legacy will, of course, remain to be seen.8 Nevertheless, the uses and presence of polls in the modern presidency are as unique and distinct as the occupants of the office themselves.
With the institutionalization of polling in journalistic organizations and presidential administrations, polls and presidents will continue to enjoy an inextricable relationship in the media reports that voters consume and in the images and words presidents create.9 This, too, is not surprising. After all, the power and allure that poll numbers possess is well documented.10 However, communication scholars, students of the presidency, and historians often use polling data to describe the sentiment or mood surrounding a president or to show how a given act (political or rhetorical) affected the polis's attitudinal barometer. Using polling data to gauge presidential action, however, does not explain if and how presidents use polls to invent their public messages. Susan Herbst notes that "political scientists are committed to studying the relationship between polling and public policy, but we know much less about the effects of polls on political discourse and political action."11 This seems important.
The way presidents decide to speak to "the people" possesses implications that extend far beyond whether history will deem them quotable. As Jefferey Tulis rightly asserts, "Political rhetoric is, simultaneously, a practical result of basic doctrines of governance, and an avenue to the meaning of alternative constitutional understandings."12 To that I would add that the rhetorical processes that presidents use to arrive at such "understandings" are-themselves-reflections of the brand of democratic theory to which they subscribe. If the ways in which presidents speak to those they govern is important, I would argue that the way presidents "listen" to the electorate is of equal significance. The two, as I intend to reveal, are inextricably linked. Thus, understanding the processes by which decision-makers-in this case presidents-make rhetorical decisions represents not only a "behind the scenes" look at speech-craft, but also of state-craft. Hence I, like Herbst, find it curious that more work on polls and the production of presidential speeches has yet to be conducted.
As Bruce Altschuler notes, "Private polling has been so little studied not because of its lack of importance but due to the difficulty of getting information."13 This fact is largely due to the methodological difficulties inherent in achieving access to the principals involved and also to private polling data and its corresponding application in message production. Hence, this essay is an effort to begin exploring this understudied area by asking, "How do presidents and their staff members use public opinion research instrumentally in creating presidential speeches?"14 This question assumes that presidents do, in fact, utilize opinion data to create what Lawrence R. Jacobs and Robert Y. Shapiro have recently termed "crafted talk"-public messages created from public opinion research.15 However, Jacobs and Shapiro offer no explication of the rhetorical process by which crafted talk is actually created. What's more, they conclude that the instrumental use of public opinion research during the process of inventio ultimately "corrupts public communications and the public debate by making manipulation and deception the currency of political discourse."16 Using the presidency of Ronald Reagan as a case study, I arrive at a somewhat different conclusion.
While presidents since FDR have integrated polls and pollsters instrumentally, Jacobs and Shapiro believe that the Reagan presidency represents a major shift in the ways presidents use polls worthy of further study.17 On this, we agree. However, in this essay, I argue that we may be witnessing the emergence of what I have called a "quantifiably safe rhetoric," the true roots of which can be found in the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the techniques of his pollster Richard Wirthlin. I define a quantifiably safe rhetoric as a rhetorical scheme constructed using pre-tested and approved content (i.e. words, themes, arguments, etc.) in an attempt to ensure a favorable (safe) response to the message from auditors.18 When understood through a rhetorical lens that encourages rhetors to use "the available means of persuasion," I argue that what Jacobs and Shapiro call crafted talk is actually the product of a technologically advanced form of rhetorical invention and one that, like rhetoric, can be used for obfuscation or illumination.
This study takes seriously the admonitions of scholars like Leo Boggart who believe "the polls of which one should be most wary are the ones that never get published."19 Thus, this essay concerns itself solely with private polls and their application in the process of rhetorical invention. A firm focus on the instrumental features of presidential poll use, however, requires a methodology that is distinctly historiographical in nature. For this reason, interviews were conducted with Reagan/Bush administration officials, press secretaries, presidential pollsters, and speechwriters.20 Also, private memos, letters, raw polling data, and survey results have been obtained and analyzed. Since this methodological choice is more the result of necessity than preference, it is important to note that questions of instrumentality all but require the use of historiographic tools.21 In addition, the term "quantifiably safe rhetoric" reflects the interdisciplinary sensibilities of the critic. Hence, this essay attempts to bridge the interdisciplinary divide by marrying concerns about the instrumental nature of political decision making (the business of political science) with an analysis of how polling technology stands to impact inventio (the business of those who study rhetoric and public affairs). To better understand the process by which President Reagan's longtime pollster Richard Wirthlin used public opinion research instrumentally to craft speeches during campaigns, as well as during the governing years, this essay will proceed in three sections.
The first section is devoted to an analysis of the formation of Richard Wirthlin's research tool called PINS (Political INformation System), his pre-presidential surveys for Reagan, and how both of these bases of information were utilized during the 1980 presidential campaign. Specifically, I investigate how PINS and other surveys were used to craft the thematic structure of Ronald Reagan's Acceptance Address on July 17, 1980 at the Republican National Convention in Detroit.22 An analysis of this speech-the most important address of Reagan's career up to that point-reveals how Wirthlin's opinion research was directly involved in the rhetorical invention of five ideographic "value mechanisms" which make up the thematic structure of the speech. It was believed that these themes would help expand Reagan's electoral coalition, particularly among traditionally Democratic voters.
The second section of this essay is devoted to the governing years between 1984 and 1988. Wirthlin's influence on the communications apparatus during this period was significant. I argue that, in addition to PINS, Wirthlin's use of "PulseLine technology" represents another clear attempt to use public opinion research tools to influence the speechwriting process. To substantiate this claim, I begin by briefly explaining the methodology of this instrument. Next, I analyze the communicative implications that PulseLines held for President Reagan's discourse by performing a content analysis of three speeches: Reagan's United Nations speech delivered on October 24, 1985; his nationally televised address before a joint session of Congress on November 21, 1985; and his radio address to the nation on the Soviet-- United States summit on November 23, 1985. My analysis reveals how Wirthlin's PulseLine studies on Reagan's UN speech located "power phrases" that were later reinserted into the two later speeches. This process represents a common feature of the rhetorical methods practiced in the Reagan White House.
The last section of this paper is devoted to a discussion of the implications of Wirthlin's PINS and PulseLine systems. Specifically, I offer an extended discussion about what the emergence of a quantifiably safe rhetoric may mean for common notions of rhetorical invention specifically, and democratic theory more broadly.
PINS, Surveys, and the 1980 Acceptance Address
That Richard Wirthlin would some day become one of Ronald Reagan's most trusted advisors was nearly impossible to predict, even for a seasoned statistician like Wirthlin. Wirthlin's ascendance to the top of the political world, however, provided him with the political resources and trust of his principal (Reagan) necessary to play a determinative role in his candidate's communications. Indeed, in the end, Reagan would place his political future and over 1.5 million dollars in campaign funds into the hands of Wirthlin and his computerized research tool referred to as the "Political Information System" (PINS) in his 1980 bid for the presidency.
On PINS and NeedleS23
Wirthlin's Political Information System was revolutionary. While PINS took over three and a half years to develop, the system was finished in time to be used for Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign. Wirthlin describes PINS as "The total information system that involves virtually every quantitative, qualitative, institutional, historical data source," and as "a system that combined attitudinal, behavioral research with institutional information, demographic information from the census, and then political vote data."24 The system's diverse collection of data included everything from information about television coverage to lists of key opinion leaders in various states.25 This wide array of data was designed around five central information components-1) up-to-the-minute survey data on both candidates' standings on the national, state, and county levels 2) a variable adjustment component that would correct for newly found demographic shifts 3) a compendium of voting histories for all 50 states and 3,041 counties in the U.S. 4) a numeric valuation for party organizational support (for both parties) in each state 5) a marginal variable for "insider information" to account for regional developments that might alter the calculus maintained by PINS-for the purpose of simulating the 1980 political campaign environment in order to assess and devise strategic decisions. Taken separately, these bases of information were not new to public opinion research or campaign strategists. However, when combined with a) the use of tracking polls that allowed for daily updating of data b) the ability to simulate multiple scenarios by either candidate and c) the rapidity afforded by having this information in a centralized computer system, PINS represented a powerful tool from which tactics and rhetorical strategy could be derived.
One of PINS greatest strengths was the system's ability to interpret how various rhetorical "moves" by either candidate might affect public approval percentages through a process of "war-gaming." This method relied on posing various "What if?" questions to the computer to measure how, for example, Reagan addressing a county with a message that survey data indicated would resonate with those particular voters might impact his overall ratings. Wirthlin explains:
We would, again, make assumptions about the profile of the electorate: Who was likely to turn out? What were the vote probabilities of various constituents? To what extent is an issue salient? Then we would run a series of "What if?" questions, knowing well before-and I would like to stress this-what Reagan's position would be. We wouldn't really run the simulation to determine a quote, "best position," but we ran them to determine where our vulnerabilities were as well as our strengths.27
The polling team stresses that PINS did not represent an electoral "auto-pilot" feature. According to Richard Beal, one of Wirthlin's assistants, "You never make a judgment on the basis of PINS alone. You use it to test the suggestions and theories of your political junkies, and you use the knowledge of the political junkies to test the empirical data in PINS."28 Indeed, Wirthlin and his staff are quick to stipulate that their work was never an attempt to tell Reagan what to say, rather, the best way to say it.29 Put another way, Wirthlin's job was to create the packaging; coming up with the product (policy) was still Reagan's job. Equally advantageous to the PINS system and its use in the 1980 race was Reagan's uncharacteristically strong showing in those cohorts that typically voted Democrat.
The Value of Value Structures: Wirthlin Discovers the "Reagan Democrats"
After conducting an extensive survey during the summer of '79, Wirthlin discovered that the values Reagan espoused possessed "Very strong implications and were closely aligned with the vote."30 Wirthlin believed that Reagan's rhetorical use of values held the secret to his success with voters who typically voted Democrat. The pollster says that Reagan's public speeches, going back to his days as Governor of California, always contained three elements. First, he says Reagan used "a rational component, frequently interlaced with numbers or policies that suggest something that appeals to the head."31 These logos appeals were combined with a second tangible "concrete component" which was a "benefit or consequence" for the policies he proposed. While Wirthlin says that these elements were common for political discourse, what deviated was Reagan's third element. He observed that Reagan took the first two elements and then incorporated an appeal to an auditor's values. This linkage often came in the form of a narrative Wirthlin says:
What he was doing [telling an anecdote] ... that's the way you talk about values. You don't talk about values as Bush did by saying "family values" a thousand times as if it were a political mantra. That isn't the way to commit. People do not like to be told "You should be patriotic!" or "You should be self-sufficient!" But telling them a short story does it.32
While storytelling was unquestionably a trademark of the Reagan style, it was his ability to use narratives to organize and introduce value structures that resonated with voters that allowed his rhetorical approach to connect with them.33 Wirthlin says that his study during the summer of 1979 confirmed what he suspected. Reagan's crossover appeal to "blue collar" voters and Catholic ethnics was the result of the value dimensions inherent in his public messages. This revelation would be central to Wirthlin's thematic prescriptions for Reagan's 1980 nomination speech.
The Rhetorical Invention of Ronald Reagan's 1980 Acceptance Address
As Kurt Ritter has recognized, while the acceptance address continues to be the most widely broadcast speech of the campaign, it also remains one of the most understudied forms of presidential rhetoric.34 A survey of the existing literature on Reagan's 1980 acceptance address by rhetorical scholars reveals only two journal articles and one book section.35 While these treatments offer interesting and important insights, none focuses on the role that Wirthlin or his data played in the rhetorical invention of Reagan's convention speech. This seems peculiar not because it was one of Reagan's most important speeches-- although it was-and not because it was flawlessly delivered-- although it was-but because of the high level of value that Reagan's strategists placed upon this speech and its implications for structuring Reagan's governing years. Indeed, values and a moral focus were central to Reagan's presidency. As William K. Muir, Jr. notes, "Above all other objectives Reagan sought to mold the fundamental axioms on which Americans premised their lives.... The key to the Reagan administration is its rhetorical character. It was organized to achieve a moral revolution."36 These observations are reinforced by an analysis of the major themes present in Ronald Reagan's address. But how were these themes invented, how did they work, and what was their strategic purpose? An analysis of the instrumental use of Wirthlin's findings reveals the answers to these important questions.
Peter Hannaford served as the principal writer for Reagan's acceptance address. The campaign team convened early strategy meetings to determine the overarching goals of Reagan's speech. Hannaford recalls that during these meetings the words "inspire" and "thematic" arose continually.37 Instead of a laundry list of proposals, Reagan's goal would be to devise a rhetorical structure that allowed him to reference Wirthlin's "community of shared values" theme in an effort to create a sense of unity that transcended partisan, racial, and religious differences. In June of 1980, only a month before the acceptance address, Wirthlin wrote a memo explaining to his colleagues that his polling firm DMI (Decision Making Information) tested six different messages for the general election campaign. Of the six, two broad themes rated most favorably. DMI's findings showed that the electorate was hungry for a candidate that represented 1) "A strong leader" and that reflected a belief in a 2) "Problem-solving country."38 Wirthlin wrote, "These two messages appealed particularly to voters within Reagan's base of support and within the target groups which Reagan must attract if he is to assemble a winning coalition." But Wirthlin knew it would be necessary to understand the inner mechanics of these themes in order to determine the most effective "vehicle" by which to communicate these messages. Thus, this strategy memo explains the influence values possess in American politics.
In this critical memorandum, under the heading "Voter Values and Aspirations," a philosophical Wirthlin explains the important role that values play in American democracy and thus begins to locate the rhetorical form he believed would be most effective.
There is a tendency in our increasingly complex and highly technological society to forget that American Democracy is less a form of government than a romantic preference for a particular value structure. The most fundamental tenet in the American value structure is our confidence in the malleability of the future by individual, spontaneous, voluntary efforts by a community of man.... The lack of confidence in the central tenet of the American value structure relates directly to the American presidency. The primary leadership function of the American President is to reaffirm constantly the country's highest purposes and the premise that individual efforts can make a positive difference in the future.39
Wirthlin's epistemological position regarding public opinion and voting behavior stipulated that "Values drive votes, not partisanship."40 Such a view would mean that any strategic framework must concurrently communicate the messages most likely to resonate with voters-strong leadership and unity-while also stressing value dimensions. Wirthlin understood that a rhetoric purely based in logos was not enough to produce an impassioned electoral response. "You can persuade by reason," says Wirthlin, "but if you want to motivate you have got to do it through emotion. You do that by tapping into people's values."41 Charged with the task of strategizing the most important speech of Ronald Reagan's career, that is precisely what he set out to do-present the themes most salient to voters in a pathos-laden package. Indeed, while Hannaford would be the one to commit words to paper, Wirthlin and his polling data were responsible for the architecture of the address.
The Importance of Five Ideographs: "Family, Work, Neighborhood, Peace, and Freedom"
Throughout the primary battle, Wirthlin had been thinking about the implications of the previous summer's survey on values and the data PINS continued to produce on the composition of various constituencies. Wirthlin says, "We viewed the convention as the best single opportunity to present, almost unencumbered, our candidate to a very wide voter group.',42 Thus, with the political stakes of Reagan's speech high, the pollster says that he actually decided to work alongside Hannaford as he wrote the acceptance speech. Wirthlin recalls, "We literally locked ourselves into a room to do work on that speech until about 20 minutes before we gave it to the president to give."43 While the final touches on the speech may have been made right before the address was delivered, Wirthlin had determined the thematic construction of the speech beforehand by instrumentally utilizing his polling data on values and from PINS.
On July 17, 1980 at the Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan offered his thanks to attendees and the citizens of Detroit and then said:
I'm very proud of our party tonight. This convention has shown to all America a party united, with positive programs for solving the nation's problems; a party ready to build a new consensus with all those across the land who share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom.44
By prominently displaying them at the beginning of the speech, Reagan introduces the centrality of five ideographs. Michael McGee defines an ideograph as "A high-order abstraction representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal."45 In Reagan's speech these five ideographs comprise the American "community of shared values." As Henry Scheele observed, "This value cluster represented a stratagem by Reagan to associate himself with a large grouping of commonly held values with which most American constituencies might identify."46 The rhetorical invention of these five key terms create the thematic "spine" of the speech and were the product of Richard Wirthlin and his research findings.47
Wirthlin explains that the five critical words-family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom-were selected to appeal to the swing voters that Reagan needed to court (i.e., blue collars, Catholics, and Southerners) in order to win the general election. To do this the pollster used a system of rhetorical referents with value implications. "We didn't come up with clear values but we came up with institutions or concepts that were value laden. 'Family' for example, which is not a value by the way, generates a value sense of 'belonging.' "48 The findings from PINS and the major survey in the summer of 1979 run by Wirthlin allowed him to theorize what he calls "value mechanisms" and/or "value constructs."49 These value mechanisms/constructs were created in order to allow auditors the latitude to create their own meanings, while simultaneously ensuring that listeners would receive a particular set of attending values (which just so happen to be viewed as highly favorable, and therefore quantifiably safe). To do this, precise and targeted word choices were necessary.
Although the five central themes Wirthlin selected were purposefully open ended, lexical choices were not made randomly or unconsciously. Nor were terms chosen without a quantifiable explanation for the impact each word would make upon an audience. Indeed, Wirthlin says that important distinctions were found to exist between nearly synonymous words. For example, he explains that his research revealed that "There is a huge value difference between the terms `workplace' and a job.'"50 The terms that were tested, Wirthlin says, were suggested throughout the campaign and with the input of the speechwriters. And while suggestions were solicited, it was Wirthlin whose studies confirmed and measured which terms registered the most favorable impact on values.
The five ideographs were consistently utilized throughout Reagan's 45-minute speech. Wirthlin explains the tactical rationale for Reagan's address:
We wanted, first, to establish that in addition to the fact that Ronald Reagan is a strong, decisive individual, that he also is compassionate, has a very broad point of view in terms of values of family, neighborhood, workplace, peace, and freedom. We wanted to signal that there was a chance to begin the world. That theme was consciously developed.51
Henry Scheele conducted a content analysis of the address and located the frequency with which Reagan invoked these five themes. His findings, shown in Table 1, are instructive because they reveal that these five themes did, in fact, form the organizational framework of the speech.52
Thus, Reagan's speech declares that, "work and family are at the center of our lives, the foundation of our dignity as a free people." For this reason, a reduction of tax rates, as well as increased budgetary restraint is necessary in order to "Put more Americans back to work." Because "we always seek to live in peace," Reagan reminds us that, "We know only too well that war comes not when the forces of freedom are strong, it is when they are weak that tyrants are tempted." At each turn the PINS approved ideographs are used to justify the policy proposals. How does he know that these ideographs are salient? As Reagan tells us near the end of his speech, "Everywhere we've met thousands of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans from all economic conditions, walks of life, bound together in that community of shared values of family, work, neighborhood, peace and freedom." The brilliance of this strategy is that Reagan asks voters not to trust him, rather, to trust their values: "I ask you not simply to `trust me,' but to trust your values-our values-and to hold me responsible for living up to them."53 These value mechanisms not only served as the dominant thematic structure of the speech, but they also played an important role in allowing Reagan to tap into the deeply held emotions Wirthlin's research found were embedded in these terms.
The themes presented were in line with the types of speeches Reagan wrote himself throughout his career. What was different was Wirthlin's ability to quantify and target specific themes to serve strategic rhetorical purposes. Wirthlin says:
I was asked to assume both the role of strategist and pollster, so I stepped back from the polling activity a little. The strategy was very strongly conditioned by the kind of polling work we had done. For instance, we used polls to identify constituencies, to confirm the fact that we had good targets among Catholics and blue collars and in the South. The polls were extremely valuable in assessing exactly what it was about the Reagan message ... that appealed to these various groups.54
After the election Wirthlin ran a data analysis to find out how Reagan did in the target groups PINS had helped him to focus on, as well as in other cohorts. A review of these figures shows that Reagan was successful in sizably cutting into those areas typically "owned" by Democrats such as the South (50% for Reagan), Catholics (49%), blue collars (45%), as well as the all-important Independent voter (52%).55 The themes that Wirthlin's surveys and system had so successfully crafted found their way into much more than the text of Reagan's speech. They also made a significant impact on the shape of the Republican Party platform as well as the structure of Reagan's presidential rhetoric.
Wirthlin's five ideographs were more than Roman numerals by which to organize Reagan's speech, they were meant to act as the pillars upon which the rest of the campaign, as well as Reagan's presidency, would be built. At the 1980 Republican National Convention, the Reagan team made sure that even the party platform reflected Wirthlin's themes:
We will reemphasize those vital communities like the family, the neighborhood, the workplace, and others which are found at the center of our society between the government and the individual. We will restore and strengthen their ability to solve problems in the places where people spend their daily lives and can turn to each other for support and help.56
It is clear that Wirthlin had "reemphasized" his community of shared values by masterfully orchestrating the convention and influencing parts of the party's platform. But Wirthlin's vision for his poll-driven pillars went beyond the convention. He wanted to craft a foundation that would preserve the kind of message consistency that Reagan would become known for after the election. When Wirthlin consulted the Reagan transition team after the 1980 victory, he stressed the sheer gravity of the speech when he advised, "The values the President-Elect described in his Detroit acceptance speech [of family, work, neighborhood, peace, and freedom] should now begin to be rearticulated as operational components of a new sense of civic duty for all Americans."57 The poll-tested potency of these five concepts ensured their continued use and prominence.
Wirthlin's rhetorical scaffold is so durable that Reagan repeats it again four years later during his second inaugural:
These will be years when Americans have restored their confidence and tradition of progress; when our values of faith, family, work, and neighborhood were restated for a modern age ... when we helped preserve peace in a troubled world... and turned the tide of history away from totalitarian darkness and into the warm sunlight of human freedom.
As the president declares, the values are enduring and haven't changed; they just need to be "restated for a modern age." Thus, the continuity of Reagan's "community of American values" remains, even as times and policies have changed. Another benefit of his five-part ideographic structure is that by keeping the five PINS tested values in use throughout both of his terms, the president is able to foster an image of ideological and political consistency. The quantifiably safe nature of the five terms ensures that even if his policies aren't popular, the rhetoric that surrounds them can be.
Wirthlin's "community of shared values"-family, neighborhood, workplace, peace, and freedom-allows Reagan the discursive latitude he needs to justify future policy proposals. The key is that by locating popular value touchstones, Reagan creates an umbrella under which he can protect (or, if need be, shield) his policy motives. The terms are malleable enough to apply to just about any policy initiative. Although ideographs are not new, Reagan's process of rhetorical invention was.
Rhetoricians have long relied upon ideographs. However, what is different about Wirthlin's process of ideographic invention is that his terms have been pre-tested, approved, and deemed quantifiably safe by the president's pollster and chief strategist for dissemination to a mass audience. Because the rhetorical vehicles contain value abstractions that are proven to resonate with audiences, Reagan's meaning becomes the auditors' meaning, and vice versa. The electoral benefit for the rhetor is that he has analyzed his lexical choices in advance and has determined that they are quantifiably safe, thus reducing the risk that a message will be ill received. This process of measurement, while not a guarantee of rhetorical or electoral success provides, at minimum, some degree of solace to the politician and his advisors that their communication strategy is viable. In the uncertain world of politics, the minimization of risk is always a welcome property. Indeed, once such strategies are devised and proven effective they are likely to be maintained. Reagan's instrumental use of public opinion research tools for rhetorical purposes was not merely an electoral phenomenon. Indeed, under the direction of Richard Wirthlin, the use of public opinion tools would continue to play a major role in the process of rhetorical invention during the governing years.
Instrumental Uses of Survey Research from 1984-1988
When Ronald Reagan entered office Richard Wirthlin was offered a permanent position in the White House. But Wirthlin decided otherwise. While the pollster would technically remain on the "outside" of the White House, his advice and influence were clearly welcome inside the Oval Office.58 Wirthlin says he met with the president and the Troika (beaver, Meese, Baker) at least two times a month. The pollster's impact on presidential communications, however, was at its strongest from 1984-1988. During this period he would introduce another of his public opinion research tools into the president's communication arsenal. Unlike PINS, this instrument would not only aid in the development of themes, but would affect the very words contained in the president's speeches. This connection between polling and rhetoric created a level of integration and precision previously unseen by a sitting president.
The term "pollster" connotes an almost instant connection with quantitative research tools; yet some of the most powerful public opinion instruments used for rhetorical designs are explicitly qualitative in their methodological design. One of the most frequently used opinion research devices during the governing years came in the form of a tool marketing professionals have long referred to as a "dial group," but which Wirthlin refers to as a "PulseLine." PulseLine usage under Wirthlin represented a direct attempt to use the reactions from a speech to craft and refine future rhetoric. In this segment I begin with a brief explication of this instrument's methodology before uncovering how Wirthlin integrated PulseLines into the president's speech making process.
Unlike PINS, PulseLines do not utilize complex quantitative models to produce their findings. In fact, the process is fairly straightforward. The researcher in charge selects a group to participate in the PulseLine session. The selection process, unlike in polling, is anything but random. Instead, members are hand-selected on the basis of a wide array of factors including religious affiliation, gender, socio-economic status, age, and ethnic background. The idea is to construct an audience that most clearly resembles the target audience the researcher wants his or her message to reach. Group sizes vary. Richard Wirthlin's PulseLine groups ranged anywhere from 30 to as many as 100 members, which he says is fairly large for qualitative work.59
Once the group is selected, each member is given a hand-held electronic box with either a dial or a punch pad with numbers on its face, depending upon the type of system being used. Each box is connected to a central unit, which records any responses entered by the hand-held devices. The PulseLine session begins with the researcher explaining that the group will view a recorded or live televised speech. When respondents hear and see something that they like group members are told they should turn the dial in a specified direction (or enter a certain number series if using a punch pad system). Likewise, if the viewers hear something they do not like, they are asked to turn the knob in the opposite direction. The ratings of each respondent are calculated and averaged in real time by the central unit. Then the viewers' responses can be printed out in an EKG-like chart, which shows the moments in the television stimulus when a message either did or did not resonate.60 From this rating a survey researcher can then literally superimpose a tracing of the dial readings onto a videotape of the speech event each respondent originally viewed.61 This allows the researcher to precisely pinpoint the exact moment that a message resonated with viewers, and allows him/her to isolate which themes and/or words were responsible for the positive ratings recorded by the PulseLine. While this technology may seem advanced, PulseLines have been around for quite some time.
Marketing and commercial advertising professionals have used these devices since the 1960s to test the effectiveness of proposed television ads.62 However, it was not until Reagan entered the White House that PulseLines were integrated so directly into a sitting president's communication strategies. Wirthlin believed that PulseLines were a tool he could use to help the speechwriters identify the lexical choices that his research showed produced the impact Reagan desired. This process, therefore, was meant to yield a constant state of "rhetorical recycling."
Wirthlin understood that for a message to make it through the media's filter it must be sustained over time and singularly focused. Wirthlin says, "We found that if we hit a story a day, the press wouldn't pick it up. But if we could sustain a story for three days we would get about five or six times the impact."63 Hence, he used PulseLines extensively throughout Reagan's second term to find out how voters were responding to Reagan's speeches. The goal was to isolate what are referred to as "power phrases" or "power lines" so that they could be reinserted into future speech drafts. The hope was that by having the communications apparatus and the polling apparatus work in tandem, a positive rhetorical synergistic effect would take place that would sustain positive power phrases, and elide negative ones.
When asked to explain how dial group sessions were administered and evaluated, Wirthlin answered:
What we do is develop a standard measure. It is not so much the absolute amplitude of the positive response but it is also perhaps even more important to measure the temple or rate of change from positive to negative that highlights those phrases and those positions that you are getting a positive response from.64
Thus, by measuring the differential between the peaks of the EKG-- like scrawlings from the central unit, Wirthlin was able to locate and isolate the exact points in the president's speech that viewers liked best. Wirthlin says that he used PulseLines on almost every major speech that Reagan delivered. In fact, Wirthlin says that he met "quite frequently" with the speechwriters and would also sit down with the president and edit and "correct" rough drafts.65 Again, Wirthlin's access to both the inner machinations of the speechwriting process as well as directly to the president made him a powerful force in the speech making process. An example of how Wirthlin integrated PulseLine findings into the construction of public messages can be found by examining a case study of the president's speeches surrounding his visit to Geneva in 1985.
The Case of the Address to the 40th Session of the United Nations General Assembly
On October 24, 1985, President Reagan delivered an address to the 40th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The speech was a precursor to the upcoming Soviet-United States summit meeting to be held in Geneva a month later. In the address, Reagan vowed not to leave Geneva before having presented new proposals designed to achieve the goal of peace. Also, he explained the necessity of meeting face-to-face with the Soviet Union in an effort to discuss further disarmament negotiations. Toward the end of the address Reagan, using a Kennedy/Sorensenesque anaphora, declared: "Let both sides go [to Geneva] committed to a world with fewer nuclear weapons, and some day with none. Let both sides go committed to walk together on a safer path into the 21st century and to lay the foundation for enduring peace. It is time, indeed, to do more than just talk of a better world. It is time to act."66 The international stage was set for a very serious and important foreign policy summit.
In an effort to underline the importance of the summit, Reagan had scheduled a major televised address before a joint session of the Congress upon his return from meeting with the Soviet Union to discuss the outcome of the summit. In addition, the president intended to devote one of his weekly radio addresses to a message about the summit. But what listeners of the post-summit speech and the radio address did not know was that some of the most powerful phrases and words in the president's address not only had been written and tested, but had already been delivered.
Instrumental Use of PulseLines for Post-Geneva Rhetoric
Wirthlin says that PulseLines were used to ensure that President Reagan's post-Geneva speeches would resonate with citizens:
When President Reagan was going to meet with Gorbachev in Geneva he gave a speech before the United Nations-a much longer speech than what he would give coming home. We did a PulseLine on that speech and from the PulseLine we could identify the power phrases and what the most potent rhetorical positions were ... not knowing exactly how that summit would come out. Nevertheless, it gave us a context and a frame to then use those phrases that were congruent with what had happened in Geneva with what we knew about the audience response to those phrases and then incorporate those into the speeches that he gave to the nation when he returned.67
Indeed, an analysis of Reagan's United Nations speech delivered on October 24th, nationally televised address before a joint session of Congress on November 21st, and his radio address to the nation on the Soviet-United States summit on November 23rd are instructive.
Without question, the themes for all three of these speeches, quite naturally, revolve around the concepts of peace, hope, and freedom.68 Although each address differs significantly in length each one encompasses these themes to varying degrees. Again, this is in no way surprising considering a) that most summits strive towards at least the appearance of a conciliatory spirit that seeks to establish the hope for peace and b) because Reagan's message of "peace through strength" required just as much emphasis on the former as the latter. Thus, one might logically assume that such themes were likely to surface in any of his post-summit speeches. However, when a thorough content analysis of these three rhetorical artifacts is combined with the above explication of how Wirthlin used PulseLine to make strategic lexical choices for subsequent speeches, a somewhat different picture emerges.
I wanted to see whether or not Wirthlin's comments about how power phrases from the UN speech were reinserted into subsequent messages was supported by the rhetorical texts. Thus, I coded all three speeches. In particular, careful attention was given to recurring lexical constructions emanating from the original UN speech Wirthlin PulseLined. In Table 2, I offer some of these repeated lines derived from Reagan's United Nations speech, delivered almost a month prior:
As is clear from Table 2, these distinguishable phrases taken from the UN speech reappear in subsequent addresses after the president's trip to Geneva. This fact, however, does not conclusively prove much of anything. Perhaps the same writers collaborated on these speeches. Perhaps the phrases were favorites of senior staffers, the chief of staff, or the president himself. Thus, confirmation from Wirthlin is critical. I contacted Wirthlin for a follow-up to my original interview. I presented him with the phrases that my content analyses led me to believe may represent the power phrases gleaned from his PulseLines on the United Nations speech. His response was confirmatory, "You did pick out ... the three major power phrases that we found in the UN speech that were used later... You are safe in drawing the conclusion you have."69
Three important insights can be gleaned from the above analysis. First, it is clear that Wirthlin's use of PulseLines directly affected the lexical choices of later speeches. Just as Wirthlin explained, the above phrases registered positively with PulseLine respondents and thus were reinserted into the president's subsequent speeches. Second, Wirthlin's instrumental use of dial groups does not represent an attempt to create the original power phrases themselves. Rather, the pollster used PulseLines in an effort to locate potent phrases originally written by Reagan's speechwriters. True to their title, the speechwriters were still the ones writing speeches.
Finally, it is important to note that, as the case above illustrates, PulseLines were used on serious and significant presidential messages. Because these speeches received the greatest degree of media coverage, and were therefore potentially viewed by more people, Wirthlin understood that locating the power words and phrases was an important component of extending the communications strategy beyond just reinsertion into future speeches. For example, Reagan's surrogate speaking program could benefit by knowing which phrases and words would be most popular with media consumers while at the same time remaining true to Reagan's original rhetoric. However, this kind of focus on PulseLine technology and its direct influence on the president's discourse, Wirthlin believes, obfuscates the true origin of the president's rhetorical power: Ronald Reagan himself.
Says Wirthlin, "A lot has been highlighted about our PulseLine technology. And while it was interesting, and I think helpful in many ways ... it misses the point that we did have a terrific reservoir of talent to draw upon in Reagan himself. Both in the way he delivered speeches and the structuring of those speeches."70 Speechwriters like Tony Dolan and Peter Hannaford and press secretary Larry Speakes all contend that Reagan played a very active role in the creation of his speeches.71 And while that fact is true, Wirthlin's sentiments must be viewed in the light of the level of anonymity and deference most presidents are afforded by their operatives. As this essay has shown, it is clear that the instrumental uses of opinion research tools like PINS and PulseLines played an influential role in the process of speechmaking in the Reagan White House. However, this feature of Reagan's repertoire begs the question, "Are such actions representative of true rhetorical invention or something else?"
Rhetorical scholars like John M. Murphy have begun considering what the introduction of polling may mean for the process of rhetorical invention in presidential discourse.72 Given that polling is an institutional feature of the modern presidency, such investigation is clearly warranted. Settling on a definition of rhetorical "invention" is a good starting point. As Stephen Lucas reminds us, "We must recall that the original meaning of 'invent' was to find or to discover, not to create something new." Indeed, Cicero's definition describes invention as a process of "discovery" not "creation."73 Thus, I argue that PulseLines employ a self-reflective version of invention that seeks to find and discover, not necessarily create.74 As the above case study reveals, Wirthlin's PulseLine system located "power phrases" and then reinserted them in later drafts in an attempt to maintain message discipline and to craft a quantifiably safe rhetoric for the president.
By saying this I am in no way suggesting that these phrases were responsible for singularly expanding the president's popularity. Nor am I interested in making the argument that Wirthlin's use of PulseLine technology was responsible for singularly writing Reagan's speeches. What I do contend is that Wirthlin used PulseLines to make lexical choices and that, because of his access and influence in the communications apparatus, those power phrases were reinserted into future speeches. Understanding that this phenomenon existed requires reflection about what the potential implications of this practice (as well as PINS) hold for rhetorical invention, as well as for democratic theory.
For too long, pundits, scholars, and political observers have been all too comfortable in asserting that a given president's rhetoric was the result of polling. As was discussed from the outset, such speculation is understandable given the cloak of secrecy that typically shrouds the actions of presidential pollsters. This essay represents an attempt to begin to better understand how the quantitative and qualitative tools at a president's disposal are used in the process of message formation. Richard Wirthlin's influence on Reagan's communications came as the result of three critical factors-1) his longstanding history and friendship with the president 2) the pollster's capacity to gain and maintain access within both the polling and communication apparatuses 3) Wirthlin's ability to demand and receive unprecedented levels of fiscal support for his polling activities.75 And yet, revealing that President Reagan's polling and communication operations did, in fact, work in tandem to create quantifiably safe rhetoric raises important theoretical questions that go to the heart of rhetorical invention specifically and democratic theory more broadly.
Richard Neustadt's axiom that "Presidential power is the power to persuade" must not be ignored.76 Given this feature of the modern rhetorical presidency it is no wonder that presidents have turned to pollsters to help them maintain power through improving their ability to persuade. The outgrowth of this need to ensure the careful calibration that strong leadership requires has created a political environment ripe for the introduction of quantifiably safe rhetoric. Indeed, it was Neustadt who posed the following questions, "Granting that persuasion has no guarantee attached, how can a President reduce the risks of failing to persuade? How can he maximize his prospects for effectiveness by minimizing chances that his power will elude him?"77 Through my explication of quantifiably safe rhetoric I have offered one viable answer to Neustadt's questions. This answer, however, requires an examination of its potential implications.
Nearly twenty-two years ago, public opinion research instruments like PINS and PulseLines represented a newer breed of technological tools for Reagan to use in the process of rhetorical invention. While Aristotle and Cicero never envisioned such advances, I have argued that Wirthlin's tools provided new "means of persuasion" for Reagan's communication apparatus to use. Given the stakes (financial, ideological, political) of presidential elections and administrations, it is no wonder that decision-makers long for greater certainty in their rhetorical strategies. As has been shown, Richard Wirthlin's role in the creation of this new generation of computerized tools is significant and represents a sustained attempt to create quantifiably safe rhetoric in campaigns, as well as during periods of governance. In Reagan the pollster found a candidate who cared deeply about his communications and who had the war chest to fund systems designed to improve them. One question that must be considered by rhetorical critics is "Do such tools represent a fundamental shift in current conceptions of rhetorical invention?"
It is important, I think, not to overstate the power of quantifiably safe rhetoric. After all, rhetoric remains an emergent, situational endeavor that is inherently unpredictable. What's more, it is entirely reasonable-indeed necessary-for rhetorical scholars to ask whether systems like PulseLines, for example, are dissimilar from the simple act of a speechwriter(s) keeping track of the most popular applause lines from a speech and then simply reinserting them in future addresses. And while it is important to be cautious about overstating the importance of Wirthlin's systems, I believe that PulseLines differ from conventional methods of rhetorical invention in at least three important ways.
First, PulseLines allow the rhetor to pre-test the strength of certain lines relative to others. While it is true that applause can vary in duration and decibel, the PulseLine represents a definitive and scalable measure. Second, the instrument's potential for targeting messages towards particular cohorts affords a president the ability to locate lines that will appeal directly to specific constituencies. More than any other communicator, presidents feel the burdens of speaking to multiple audiences simultaneously. Thus, using PulseLines a pollster can create a customized rhetorical strategy that resonates with multiple cohorts within a single message. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, PulseLines allow the rhetor to conduct "trial runs" in private. While Wirthlin (to my knowledge) used PulseLines after events, the technology certainly lends itself to being used prior to a speech to invent content.78 Given the media's hunger for confrontation and miscues by political figures, having the ability to pre-test power phrases in secret means that strategists can reduce the chances of having their principal deliver a "trial balloon" that may be shot down upon release. Again, the minimization of risk represents the ultimate strength of quantifiably safe rhetoric. These views are preliminary and certainly need to analyzed and debated. For example, we need to debate whether the technologies of presidential pollsters change the calculus of rhetorical invention or whether, by a strange twist of technological fate, such methods represent the true spirit of inventio envisioned by our ancient Greek and Roman counterparts-the process of "discovering" topoi. While the above three points illustrate important distinctions, I have essentially argued the latter. Perhaps other voices will hold the former. Nevertheless, more than rhetorical invention stands to be affected by quantifiably safe rhetoric.
The careful calibration that democratic theory requires may also be impacted by the emergence of quantifiably safe rhetoric. The communication of preferences by the demos to its leaders is fundamental to the maintenance of institutional legitimacy. But this process can often be awkward and confusing. As Jeffrey E. Cohen has observed, "The public has many contradictory expectations about the presidency. One set of contradictions that strikes at the core of the presidency is that the public expects the president to provide policy leadership while it also expects him to respond to public opinion-it expects him to lead and to follow."79 Alexis de Tocqueville similarly observed that "Sometimes public opinion is self-contradictory. "80 This tension is inherent to quantifiably safe rhetoric. As I have shown, Reagan tried to lead rhetorically by following the lexical preferences and value themes that voters expressed. Whether or not that fact represents an abrogation of presidential leadership is debatable. However, I am inclined to argue that it does not given the fact that Reagan's policy positions remained relatively consistent throughout his political life.81 Indeed, it appears that Wirthlin's work was often an attempt to determine how to say something (lexical decision making) as opposed to what to say (specific policy proposals). Yet while Reagan's use of quantifiably safe rhetoric may not denote a lack of sound judgment that does not mean that his predecessors have or will follow in kind.82 Indeed, the implications of quantifiably safe rhetoric for democratic theory are serious and worthy of discussion.
When viewed through a purely Machiavellian lens, critics of quantifiably safe rhetoric are likely to argue that the instrumental use of public opinion research in presidential discourse is proof positive that sophistry is alive and well. By cloaking policy preferences in popular lexical constructions, this view argues, presidents are playing a verbal "shell game" with auditors which reduces the prospects for democratic responsiveness and increases the opportunities for decision-makers to make actions for which they are less likely to be held accountable. This is precisely the fear of Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro who have argued that although "misleading political rhetoric has ... always been a part of political life," the technological sophistication of pollsters has given them the ability to use "crafted talk" to avoid being responsive to public opinion.83 What's more, they contend that politicians use centrist language to mask partisan policy preferences. This, they believe, represents a negative development that "threatens our democratic order."84 But the distinction between "crafted talk" and "quantifiably safe rhetoric" is an important one. And while I agree that the usage they describe is possible, I wish to balance their concerns with a more optimistic potentiality as well. Indeed, my position, while not in direct contradistinction with Shapiro and Jacobs is best illustrated by the terms we have assigned to instrumental usage of polls in discourse. What they call "talk," I call "rhetoric."
As Robert L. Scott argued long ago, "rhetoric is epistemic."85 That is, rhetoric creates a way of knowing and meaning. In this process a speaker's intentions, motives, and beliefs enter into a dialogue with the intentions, motives, and beliefs of audiences. Indeed, the hypodermic needle theory is dead, and rightly so. Instead, we have learned that audiences and speakers engage in a continual process of sending and receiving, an endless feedback loop. My concern with "craft talk" is that it seems to ignore the role the audience plays in the rhetorical situation. It views the communications of elected officials with the citizenry as a process wherein "deception replaces reason and the public is treated as an object to be manipulated."86 But what of the role of the citizen (read audience member) in this process? Does not he/she possess an equal complicity in not unmasking deception if, in fact, such manipulation is promulgated? Do citizens not have the right, indeed the obligation, to replace deceivers at the ballot box? The responsibilities of the citizenry in all this seem curiously absent. What's more, such a view presents a version of rhetoric that, while not unfamiliar to rhetorical critics, sees rhetoric through purely sophistic eyes without considering the possibility that decision-makers may wish to use quantifiably safe rhetoric to serve, not deceive, those they represent. Indeed, as greater social fragmentation occurs, the uses of quantifiably safe rhetoric may represent a president's best hope for locating the few remaining "common denominators" in his/her audience.87 This was surely the case with Wirthlin's use of PINS to find ideographs that would attract new constituencies (Catholic voters, "blue collar workers," etc.), while maintaining the support of the GOP base. This discussion largely revolves around the two primary models of government and one's view of each.
As Shapiro and Jacobs wisely note, the debate between a trustee model of government versus a delegate model is a false dichotomy. 88 But the emergence of quantifiably safe rhetoric presents an interesting twist on this age-old debate. In some ways, quantifiably safe rhetoric represents a hybrid of both. On the one hand, presidents using quantifiably safe rhetoric follow the lexical preferences of the citizenry (delegate model) while on the other hand using such language to create a rhetorical environment ripe for the acceptance and support of their own policy preferences (trustee model). Again, it is important to remember that the voter, not the decision-maker, has the final word on the fate of the elected official. While Jacobs and Shapiro recognize the importance of elections they "are not sanguine that they provide the cure to depressed responsiveness."89 I, however, remain hopeful that given an active and alert citizenry committed to participation in the process of leadership, rhetoric used "deceptively" or with the intent to "manipulate" can and will be judged accordingly.
In the end, the need to study the instrumental uses of polling for rhetorical purposes is great. For doing so goes to the heart of not just the rhetorical presidency, but the way Americans assess the type of leader they elect. This effort has been an attempt to go beyond speculation and assumptions about the way presidents use polls to communicate. For those who are troubled by the findings presented in this essay, I can only offer this bit of solace-the institution of the presidency remains a resilient and powerful force, as does rhetoric. Determining what the confluence of these two forces will produce remains, at base, the business of the citizenry. Insofar as voters remain committed to maintaining the careful calibration of leading and being led at the ballot box, one can remain hopeful that equilibrium will be achieved and that the proper fate of quantifiably safe rhetoric will be determined.
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