Polls reflect voters' mood, not their vote

Early leads subject to winds of fortune, uncertain electorate

Campaign 2000

October 18, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In February 1992, the glow of the nation's Persian Gulf war victory had faded considerably, but President George Bush maintained a hefty 15-point lead in the polls over an ambitious but scandal-tinged Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.

Bush's support would eventually plummet, and he would go on to suffer a 5 percentage-point defeat later that year. It's a change of fortune that Clinton fondly recalls as he rallies the Democratic troops behind Vice President Al Gore, his chosen successor, who has trailed his leading Republican rival in the polls for months.

Though Gore's standing in the polls is perilous, Clinton's optimism is not unfounded. Polls at this stage in a presidential campaign reveal quite a bit about the electorate, the depth of support for a candidate, the image he has conveyed, and the weak spots he must overcome, pollsters say.

But "the one thing they don't mean is who people are going to vote for," cautioned Dan Yankelovich, a public opinion expert and author of a new book on public discourse.

True, Clinton led his Republican challenger, Bob Dole, by 10 points in November 1995, just 2 points more than his eventual margin. But such a consistent lead by an eventual winner has been the exception in the past quarter-century.

President Jimmy Carter, for example, led Ronald Reagan by 6 points in October 1979, a year before Reagan crushed Carter by 10 points.

And Carter's vice president, Walter F. Mondale, had Reagan in a statistical dead-heat a year before the 1984 elections, only to lose by 17 points in a landslide.

Polling for the 2000 election could be even more misleading, because in a time of peace and prosperity, Americans seem uncommonly tuned out to electoral politics, warned Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

In a Pew poll last month, respondents were asked to name a Democratic presidential candidate. Only 46 percent -- and only half of self-described Democrats -- could name Al Gore. Just 13 percent could name Gore's sole rival for the nomination, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

Gore's lead over Bradley continues to slip in national polls, to about 12 percentage points. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, meanwhile, retains a commanding edge over his rivals for the Republican nomination, and over his potential Democratic opponents.

But the public's hazy impressions of all the major candidates make predictions at this point highly unreliable, pollsters agree.

"The average person is basically not paying any attention," said Tom W. Smith, director of the general social survey conducted by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

Add to that the potential wild cards of a popular Reform Party candidate, a calamitous economic downturn or a foreign policy crisis, and there's no telling how the election could be affected. Yankelovich estimated there are three times more voters who don't know whom they will vote for than are willing to acknowledge it to a pollster.

And certain aberrations in the polling results leap out. Kohut noted that current polls indicate that 18 percent of African-Americans plan to vote for Bush -- a figure that Kohut says should elicit skepticism.

"It would be next to a political revolution to have double the number of African-Americans voting for Republicans as is typical," Kohut said. "You can't bank those votes."

Bush's huge lead at this point may have more to do with the public's weariness with Clinton personally than with voters' perceptions of the candidates, said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

Looking back

A desire for a clean break from the Clinton-Gore White House, she said, has pushed a surprisingly large proportion of Democrats toward Bradley and has moved the general electorate toward Bush, whom many see as a logical extension of his solid-citizen father.

In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released Oct. 11, Clinton's job approval rating remained at a healthy 56 percent. But his personal approval rating was 35 percent.

Voters appear to be looking longingly back to President George Bush as an antidote to scandal, and that is helping his son, the current Republican front-runner. It's no coincidence, one Democratic pollster said, that George W. Bush's popularity mirrors a surge that Gore's pollsters are finding in the approval ratings of former President Bush.

But, Bowman predicted, "I do think that once you have a contest between an Al Gore and a George W., Clinton fatigue should fade, and we'll have a real contest."

Useful snapshots

For the moment, as snapshots of the electorate, polls can be useful -- especially to the candidates. Gore may take comfort from the public's inattention at this point, but he has serious problems to overcome, in image and voter trust.

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