Politicians, press become captives of opinion polls



WASHINGTON -- It is probably safe to say that President Clinton would not have held his prime-time news conference the other night if there had not been public opinion polls showing that his approval rating had dropped below 50 percent in the last few weeks. These days, almost every political decision is dictated, at least in part, by polls.

Indeed, it is fair to say that both the politicians and the press have become captives of the polling data. The president had no sooner ended his news conference than the question became, "How did it play?"

The answer can have an impact that goes quite beyond satisfying idle -- or morbid -- curiosity. The way politicians bargain with other politicians rests in some measure on how they perceive the strength of the opposition with the public.

So it is not far-fetched to say that Clinton's ability to have his way on, for example, health care reform will depend to some degree on poll numbers.

This reliance on polls is not without hazards, however. For one thing, it has become increasingly clear in the last decade that the press sees every political action through the prism of those findings.

The politician who does something that flies in the face of polling data is always given extraordinary credit for political courage.

The more serious problem with polls, however, is that they suggest some consensus in the electorate that is transitory at best. If Clinton can lose 10 points in his approval rating in two weeks, he can gain a similar amount in the same time.

There are two factors that argue against putting so much weight on poll results. The first is that on many issues, voters don't have a clear enough idea of the facts to reach an informed opinion, the complex Whitewater controversy being a case in point.

Poll-takers sometimes find they can turn the results around 180 degrees if they provide subjects with more information on the topic before they ask their questions.

The best example of the way information affects polling comes from the matchups of candidates in an impending campaign.

An incumbent may get low marks in a poll when matched against a hypothetical opponent. But once there is a particular individual identified as that opponent, the choice may not seem so clear.

Perhaps more significant is the fact that polls rarely measure the intensity of voter opinion on an issue.

Those who are questioned are obliged to reply on one side or another of a question on which they may have no hard opinion at all, either because of a lack of information or because they don't think the issue is that important.

Everyone in the polling business and political community, including the press, understands these limitations.

But the urge to find out "how it's playing" is consuming. And all political reporters agree that the polls are more reliable indicators than canvasses of party leaders, bartenders, cab drivers and political scientists.

The result of this addiction has been an explosion of polling. The White House, through the Democratic National Committee, has paid $1.9 million for polls and focus groups conducted by Stan Greenberg since Clinton took office -- enough to take the national temperature daily.

Nor is that practice unprecedented: The Reagan administration did similar monitoring through the Republican National Committee.

News organizations are similarly enthralled. All four television networks sponsor polls in cooperative arrangements with major newspapers.

They may be quantifying the obvious and simply duplicating each other's findings, but each has its "own" poll to cite.

The most valuable feature of constant polling is the ability to identify trends in popular thinking, however uninformed.

All poll-takers ask a standard question about whether people believe the country is "headed in the right direction" or "off on the wrong track." The "wrong track" number has become a valuable indicator of trouble ahead for incumbents.

Thus, it is not surprising that the White House decided a news conference was necessary, because the "wrong track" number has been rising steadily in the last few weeks.

Whether the president succeeded in slowing or reversing that trend is something we won't know, of course, until the next round of opinion polls, awaited with eager anticipation by everyone in politics.

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