Finally, a useful poll

May 17, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

AT LONG last, someone has come up with an opinion poll that tells us something we want to know.

The folks at Fox News, the television cable network, have produced a poll that asks the right questions, including:

Who would you rather have as your friend -- President Clinton or Vice President Al Gore? The answer: Mr. Clinton 22 percent, Mr. Gore 43 percent.

Who do you think it would be more fun to hang out with -- Mr. Clinton or Mr. Gore? Answer: Mr. Clinton 49 percent, Mr. Gore 19 percent.

Whoever is elected president will be on television constantly for at least four years. Who would you rather watch on television for four years -- Mr. Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush? Answer: Mr. Gore, 28 percent, Mr. Bush, 56 percent.

A front-runner

The Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey -- covering 901 registered voters reached May 5 and 6 -- asked all the usual questions about candidate preference. And it came up with all the usual answers. Among the Republicans seeking the 2000 presidential nomination, Mr. Bush is way out in front followed by Elizabeth Dole, John McCain, Dan Quayle and several others. Among Democrats, Mr. Gore leads his only challenger Bill Bradley three to one. And in the matchups, Mr. Gore continues to run behind both Mr. Bush and Mrs. Dole.

But people who understand polls and politics don't take these figures too seriously. Voters are being asked to make a choice long before they will be obliged to do so. And, the poll respondents will confess, few of them know very much if anything about anyone other than Mr. Clinton, Mr. Gore, Mr. Bush and Mrs. Dole.

The answers to those other questions are intriguing, however. They allow the imaginative poll reader to draw all sorts of inferences about how these politicians are perceived.

The preference for Mr. Gore over Mr. Clinton as "your friend" suggests, for example, that a lot of voters understand that Mr. Clinton's friends don't fare too well. In fact, many of them end up spending huge amounts of money on defense lawyers and huge amounts of time testifying to grand juries and congressional committees. And, friends or not, Mr. Clinton lies to them about what he has been doing.

Another question that produced a similar result had to do with whom you would prefer as a law partner. That one came out Mr. Clinton, 18 percent, and Mr. Gore, 49 percent.

But having Mr. Gore as your friend and law partner is one thing and spending time with him apparently is quite another, as evidenced by all those who picked Mr. Clinton -- 49 to 19 percent is an impressive margin -- as "more fun to hang out with" than the vice president.

Makes you wonder what folks think of when they muse about "hanging out" with Mr. Clinton. A lot of them may simply be people who like to play hearts, of course, but you have to wonder.

Anyway, the picture is pretty clear. Mr. Gore is the straight arrow who makes a good friend and law partner, but he is no barrel of laughs.

And that same stereotype is reinforced by the fact that twice as many people would rather spend four years watching Mr. Bush rather than Mr. Gore on their television sets. That one is a real puzzler since Mr. Bush has never been on national television for any extended exposure. What if he has a little squeaky voice and an annoying habit of fidgeting with his ear lobe while he talks?

Wooden image

The picture of Mr. Gore as the quintessential square has been out there so long that it clearly has taken hold with a lot of voters. In fact, Mr. Gore is man of considerable charm and good humor. But images are easier to acquire than they are to shake.

Happily for Mr. Gore and his supporters in the Democratic Party, the results of opinion polls conducted at this stage of the campaign are truly written in sand. There is still more than nine months before the first caucuses and primaries for all the candidates to establish accurate images of themselves.

And Mr. Gore at least knows what the problem is. He's not as much fun as Mr. Clinton. You could probably say that about a lot of people.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 5/17/99

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