Polls should not be used as basis for public policy ON THE POLITICAL SCENE



WASHINGTON -- It is probably time for another consumer warning about public opinion polls. Both the politicians and the press are putting too much faith in them too often while ignoring their limitations.

It is true, of course, that the polls are valuable as a measure of where things stand at any particular moment and even more valuable in following trends in the electorate. Incumbents have reason to be nervous when polls find a rise in the number of Americans who believe the country is "off on the wrong track," rather than "heading in the right direction."

Similarly, the polls measure what politicians and political reporters can see all around them -- in this case, that President Clinton has spent much of his original political capital and is getting bad marks for his performance from many voters who supported him a year ago.

But those who follow the polls shouldn't forget how extraordinarily volatile they can be -- a lesson taught in the most direct terms just two years ago when then President George Bush saw his approval rating plummet from close to 90 percent immediately after the Persian Gulf war to less than 50 percent in about seven months.

Nor should we overlook two fundamental limitations in the opinion surveys.

The first is that they force voters to make choices in either-or terms that suggest opinion has hardened more than is the case. Most Americans probably don't spend much time worrying about whether they approve or disapprove of Clinton's performance or whether they will vote for him again in 1996. There is plenty of time for that later. Thus, the poll figures imply some informal national consensus that really isn't there or, if it is, is tentative at best.

Secondly, the polls don't take into account adequately the differences between informed opinion and opinion rendered off the cuff when a poll-taker appears. Right now, for example, polls show that most Americans think the middle class will suffer a heavy tax burden from the Clinton economic plan, although in fact the middle class will pay only the 4.3 cents a gallon added tax on gasoline.

What this suggests is that the Republican critics of the program have done a far more effective job of projecting their view than the White House has done in selling the program to the public. But if Clinton now uses the congressional recess to occupy the center of the political stage alone over the next few weeks, those numbers are likely to change. In neither case should they be taken very seriously.

The problem for Clinton, however, is that poll numbers are indeed taken seriously by other politicians, even those who know all their limitations. A senator like David Boren of Oklahoma with an approval rating consistently above 60 percent back home doesn't think he has much to fear from a president who has an approval rating only half as high among those same voters.

The truth is that politicians are notoriously insecure about public attitudes and consequently preoccupied with their own standing with their constituents. Even a politician with the massive self-assurance of the late Lyndon B. Johnson used to carry favorable poll figures around in his jacket pocket when the protests against the war in Vietnam were growing most intense.

What this means quite obviously is that the president needs to strengthen his hand before the next critical votes on which he may be seeking support from fellow Democrats -- probably those on the North American Free Trade Agreement sometime early next year.

The civics textbooks tell us this is not the way it is supposed to work. Senators and House members alike are supposed to give their constituents their best judgment on issues, not simply react to poll figures that are flimsy enough so they may change dramatically in the next two weeks.

But presidents also are supposed to be able to demonstrate the kind of forceful leadership that sets the national agenda and builds popular support for his programs. If Clinton had been doing that in the last four or five months, he wouldn't have to be rushing from one campaign stop to another throughout the August congressional recess in a desperate attempt to build the perception of popular approval for his performance and ideas.

Polls have become highly sophisticated and valuable tools in both politics and government. But they have limitations that shouldn't be ignored. And they shouldn't be used as the basis for writing public policy.

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