Until Fat Lady sang, it was the pollsters calling the tune

ALICE STEINBACH

November 05, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Finally. the Fat Lady sang. And, finally, our long national nightmare is over.

But before we release the Fat Lady to pursue once again her vocal career in non-political sports, it should be pointed out that she did not sing alone in the recent campaign: She was accompanied by a large and sometimes off-key chorus of pollsters.

Indeed, so loud were the voices of the pollsters that at times they threatened to drown out not only the Fat Lady but her leading men as well.

Of course, for those voters addicted to the roller coaster rush of poll results, 1992 was a very good year: About 200 national polls were conducted during the campaign.

This number, by the way, does not include a poll conducted in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area that found: Of the households surveyed, 31 percent preferred Bill Clinton as a guest for Thanksgiving dinner while only 26 percent preferred George Bush and 23 percent went for Ross Perot.

The problem with this poll, of course, is trying to figure out what exactly the numbers mean when it comes to picking a president.

But even the most relevant poll leaves the voter with the tricky task of sorting out the words of the candidates from the numbers of the pollsters. Which brings up the question: Why do we put so much trust in numbers when we know they can be easily manipulated?

Researcher Daniel Yankelovich once answered that question this way: "Numbers seem to be truer than words."

But polls have gone way beyond just numbers. We now have the "talking head pollsters" -- those ever more visible personalities 00 who turn up on television more as pundits than number crunchers.

Take, for example, the strange evolution of Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican pollster Linda DiVall into talk show celebrities.

Who are they, one might ask, and why are they here on television, giving us not numbers but their partisan advice on campaign strategy? Somewhere, it seems, the line that separates the role of pollster from campaign cheerleader has been crossed -- as is demonstrated in the following television interview.

Addressing the question of strategy on ABC News two weeks prior to the election, Linda DiVall observed:

"The president . . . has to continue to remind people about the doubts they should have about Clinton's economic program. And let us not forget the last component of any presidential race is the whole arena of international affairs. This president has been tested, and Bill Clinton is sadly lacking in that regard."

And here's pollster Peter Hart on the same show:

"What's interesting is the uncertainty that people had earlier about Bill Clinton is starting to disappear and in its place is a sense that we're talking about the future as Democrats. The Republicans and George Bush are talking about the past."

If this is the domain of pollsters, then I, as Dorothy Parker might say, am the Queen of Romania.

And what are we to make of the various ways numbers are fed into the polling mixer in the hopes of achieving more desirable results?

In a recent piece on the CNN and USA Today poll that instantly changed a 6-point spread between Clinton and Bush into a 2-point gap, columnist William Safire observed: "The Gallup organization crossed the line from reporting to manipulating when it suddenly changed its methodology in the campaign's final week."

That particular poll shocked many. And more important, it seemed to reshape some opinions about all three candidates' chances. Which raises one of the most critical questions about ++ the dangers of polling: Do polls measure public opinion or do they create public opinion?

Such a question makes one wonder: What if they gave a poll and nobody answered? What if we didn't know that Clinton was ahead by a lot and then he wasn't. Or that Perot was up and then was down. In other words, what if we, as voters, had only our own independent judgment?

It brings to mind a remark made by Harry Truman -- a man who knew something about the reliability -- and vice versa -- of polls: "How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?" quipped Mr. Truman.

We'll never know. What we do know, however -- and I heard a pollster say this on TV last night -- is that we're only three years and three months away from the next New Hampshire primary.

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