WASHINGTON -- The White House made a valiant effort yesterday to highlight a new poll that shows Democrat Bill Clinton's once-startling lead over President Bush cut to 5 percentage points.
Contending that the news media had virtually ignored this good news for the president, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater held two poster boards in front of TV cameras. One displayed a title: "The Incredible Shrinking Story"; the other showed a side-by-side comparison of the space and prominence given three recent poll stories in the New York Times.
An Aug. 25 report on Mr. Clinton's 15 percentage point lead drew front-page treatment; less attention was given when the lead dropped to 10 points on Aug. 31; and only one paragraph on an inside page was devoted to the 5-point spread reported yesterday.
Missing from that chart was an intervening poll published Aug. 30 by the Washington Post that gave Mr. Clinton a lead of 20 percentage points. And Mr. Fitzwater could have updated his information to include a Cable News Network-USA Today poll released yesterday afternoon that put the Democrat ahead by 15 percentage points.
Claims of media bias notwithstanding, pollsters say it's not certain exactly where the two candidates rank -- except that Mr. Clinton has a clear lead and that it probably falls between the extreme highs and lows, somewhere around 9 or 10 points.
The wide variance in the polls is largely due to two factors: differences in survey techniques, such as the size of the sample and the type of questions asked, and the volatility of an unusually large block of undecided voters.
For example, the poll by Louis Harris and Associates to which Mr. Fitzwater referred had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. So, instead of a 50 percent-to-45 percent Clinton lead, as the poll reported, the margin might actually have been 53 percent to 42 percent.
Similarly, yesterday's CNN-USA Today poll, which found Mr. Clinton ahead by 54 percent to 39 percent, also had a 3-point margin of error. So, its correct results might be 51 percent to 42 percent -- putting it in the same range with the Harris poll.
In addition to polling differences, results appear to be especially affected this year by the ups and downs of daily events because the support for Mr. Clinton is still considered very soft.
"I think people are not fully satisfied yet with what they know about the Democratic nominee," said Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster. "I think we may have to wait until the debates when they can see both candidates side by side to get a better sense of where this is going."
A series of presidential debates, beginning Sept. 22 in Lansing, Mich., has been proposed by a special non-partisan commission. But the White House chief of staff, James A. Baker III, has not yet begun the process of negotiation that would determine the terms of Mr. Bush's participation.