New Hampshire pollsters overrated Bush support

GERMOND & WITCOVER

February 22, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

Manchester, N.H. -- Opinion polls are tricky in primaries, and no one should know that better than President Bush, who was clearly victimized by the poll-takers in New Hampshire.

The last polls taken before the primary all showed the president leading challenger Patrick J. Buchanan by about 25 points. Thus, when exit polls taken on Primary Day suddenly showed Mr. Buchanan running only 4 to 6 percent behind Mr. Bush -- even less in one case -- the television networks overreacted by exaggerating the "upset" in the making.

Although the public is never told about it at the time, reports on the exit polls come in waves -- one shortly after noon and another about 4 p.m. and the final results as the polls close.

Everyone in the political community -- including the candidates, their managers and the press -- gets the word during the day, thus creating a mind-set that sometimes isn't accurate.

The final result in New Hampshire, Mr. Bush by 16 points, was nothing for the White House to write home about but might not have seemed so damaging if the polling had been more accurate in setting the expectations.

The polling on the Democratic primary was more accurate as the late tracking caught Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's small surge to respectability. But his loss by 9 percent looked better than it was because some surveys had shown him as much as 20 percent behind only three days before the primary.

The mild surprise was the weak showing of the write-in campaign for Mario Cuomo, which some polls had shown getting several times the 3 percent finally counted. The answer may have been that the primary voters were too serious about registering their concerns on the economy to be distracted by a what-might-have-been candidacy.

MA Polling on primaries is always problematic because it is more

difficult to identify likely voters.

In the case of the Republicans this time, there may have been a special problem -- voters planning to cast their ballots for Mr. Buchanan but unwilling to say so.

Washington

There is a rough consensus among Democratic professionals that there is no room right now for a "third man" late-entry alternative to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas and Mr. Clinton. But there is also a growing uneasiness about the possibility Jesse Jackson may not agree.

His repeated statements about being pressured to run are being interpreted as an indication the civil rights leader-turned-television personality might become a candidate, after all, if he convinces himself his constituency is not adequately represented by the candidates already in the field.

Because the filing deadlines for most of the Southern primaries have passed, Mr. Jackson could not hope to accumulate the kind of delegate strength that made him a prominent figure at the last two Democratic conventions.

But a Jackson candidacy could be rallying point for the most devout liberals who consider both Mr. Tsongas and Mr. Clinton too conservative to swallow.

Sioux Falls, S.D.

The results of the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire were supposed to reduce Tuesday's South Dakota primary to a "runner-up bowl" between two Midwestern regional candidates, Sens. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Tom Harkin of Iowa, to settle which one would survive for later primaries.

But decisions by the New Hampshire winner, Mr. Tsongas, and the second-place finisher, Mr. Clinton, to show some presence here -- in person and in television commercials -- could give this state's primary greater significance.

Rather than the South Dakota primary being an elimination contest between Mr. Kerrey and Mr. Harkin, either or both could be dealt body blows if Mr. Tsongas or Mr. Clinton were to finish ahead of them.

All four, plus former Gov. Jerry Brown of California and former Mayor Larry Agran of Irvine, Calif., are to debate in South Dakota tomorrow night.

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