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Zaller: Monica Lewinsky's contribution to political science

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Zaller. 1998. Monica Lewinsky's contribution to political science. PS 31:182-9..

Main Argument

The Puzzle

In the first day or two after the Lewinsky scandal broke, Clinton's popularity fell. But within a couple weeks, his popularity had not only recovered, but it was even higher than when it started. If Zaller's (1992) earlier arguments were correct, then the intense negative coverage should have hurt Clinton dramatically, but it didn't.

The Solution

This article is Zaller's 'mea culpa': He all but argues that his earlier book (1992) was wrong. Voters evaluate politics based on real issues, not just based on what the media tells them. As Clinton emphasized in his State of the Union address (a week after the scandal broke, and during the period when his popularity was already recovering), the economy was good, Bosnia was going well, and his new proposals were centrist. The media attacks may have caused a short-term drop in popularity, but it couldn't cause a long-term drop; the public is more concerned about substantive issues.


The Lewinsky scandal demonstrated that retroactive, policy-based models of public opinion and voting have something right. On the other hand, media-based models of public opinion (including, admittedly, Zaller's own 1992 study) seem to have been overstated the ability of the media to influence public opinion. But see the rebuttal by Lawrence and Bennett, who argue against the present article in favor of Zaller's 1992 book.

Zaller's Speculations

The Role of Opposition Leaders

It's tempting to conclude that the media does influence public opinion, but only when opposition leaders also attack the president: Initially, Republican leaders refrained from attacking Clinton; contrast this with Gerald Ford, who had a quick, lasting drop in popularity when Democrats attacked him over the Nixon pardon. But this may be endogenous: The opposition leaders are only going to attack if they think they can get lasting results from doing so.

The Importance of Campaigns

Zaller thinks it is important to look at real events to explain why Clinton recovered his initiatl popularity, but he is puzzled as to why Clinton actually 'increased' in popularity beyond what his approval ratings were in the days just before the scandal broke. After all, if popularity is based on economic performance, peace, and centrism, these things didn't dramatically improve in the early days of the scandal, so why did Clinton get a net gain in popularity?

He speculates as follows: During campaigns, politics are salient and information abounds. People, therefore, update their retrospective evaluations more frequently during campaigns. Since the scandal broke in mid-term, people hadn't been paying much attention to politics. Measures of Clinton's approval just before the scandal, therefore, reflected 'outdated' "running tallies" of Clinton's performance. But as people re-evaluated Clinton in the days after the scandal, they found that the economy (and Clinton's performance in general) had actually been improving more than they had noticed in the previous months. Therefore, they updated their retrospective tallies accordingly in the days after the scandal.