An irritating survey of public opinion has just come to hand.The press release begins: ''Not since 1980 have voters been this pessimistic about the country entering into a presidential election year.''
The handout continues: ''With nearly three-quarters of Americans (73 percent) saying the country is headed off on the wrong track, the mood of the country is back to the depth of pessimism measured in October 1990 (19 percent right direction, 79 percent wrong track) . . . ''
What about it? The survey comes from Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Virginia. It is based on questions put to 800 adults on January 4 and 5.
Taking such a survey is like catching bubbles in a butterfly net. When a pollster is through polling, what does he have? The findings, as the judge said of testimony in the Firestone divorce, are all very interesting, if true. We are not given the precise wording of the questions, so it is hard to say. The key terms are ''right direction'' and ''wrong track.'' What do the terms mean to those who were polled?
My guess is that the 73 percent who said the country is on the ''wrong track'' were expressing a kind of general, fretful dissatisfaction with just about everything in their daily lives. Asked about President Bush, they took it out on him: His approval rating has sagged from 82 percent last spring to 47 percent this winter. Asked about Congress, they took it out on the House and Senate: Only 21 percent approve of Congress.
Manifestly, the nation's principal concern this winter is unemployment. It didn't take a survey to tell us that. But I wonder what these pessimistic adults would like to have done about it. If the nation is on the ''wrong track'' economically, what measures would get us back in the ''right direction''?
Most of the politicians are proposing a tax cut for families with incomes from $25,000 to $60,000. This is the statistical middle class. Would a tax cut put us on the right track? Well, yes, most respondents might say, that would make us feel good.
Then a follow-up question would explain that for most families the tax cuts now proposed would amount to only $5 or $6 a week. Cumulatively the cuts would add billions to the 1992 deficit. Are the cuts still such a hot idea?
Sixty percent of the respondents in this poll favored ''a major overhaul and change in the programs and policies of the Bush administration.'' What are we supposed to make of that? Which programs? Which policies? What changes?
When such nebulous questions are asked, no solid conclusions can be reached. The Bush administration has policies on defense, foreign aid, education, conservation, abortion, crime control and farm subsidies. What do the people think about Mr. Bush's position on wetlands? Do the people think much about it at all?
According to this survey, twice as many people are concerned about the federal deficit as are concerned about ''moral decline.'' I don't believe it. Asking people if they are concerned about the deficit is like asking them if they read the news from Yugoslavia. The responsible thing is to say yes, sure they read the news from Yugoslavia.
Let me frame the poll questions. My poll would find that people are deep down sick and scared about what is happening to old moral values. The people may not have informed opinions on Dubrovnik, but they have strong opinions on actor Warren Beatty and his latest paramour, Annette Bening, mother of his newborn bastard child. What role models for the young!
In some inner cities, illegitimacy among blacks runs to 80 percent. Illegitimacy among whites is also appalling. The old image of the American family -- the Norman Rockwell cover on the Saturday Evening Post -- has crumbled in our own time. Millions of innocent children will be growing up in single-parent households as a consequence of the sexual irresponsibility that pervades our society.
What can be done about that ''wrong track?'' How do we move society toward a right direction of family cohesiveness? What specifically would these 800 adults do about our schools? How could we better cope with crime and drug abuse? What's a realistic answer to the soaring costs of health care?
Without making a single phone call, I could have told you that 73 percent of the people are grousing. They have much to grouse about. Now give me a poll with fewer dumb questions and more thoughtful answers.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.