Incessant presidential polls that have virtually hypnotized the media and dictated in large measure the tactics of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole may cause millions of voters to skip the election.
Several pollsters, political analysts and party activists fear that the lopsided portrayal of the presidential race will discourage Republicans and Democrats from voting because many will conclude the race is over.
"Polls are featured so much in the media that the public starts mistaking them for reality," veteran journalist Daniel Schorr says. "They believe conclusions have already been drawn, results decided."
"We've become so obsessed with the horse-race numbers telling us who will be president rather than dealing with who should be president," says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a Republican pollster. "There have been so many polls this year that they have helped to fuel voter cynicism."
Curtis Gans, who runs the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, predicts that voter turnout will fall from the nearly 56 percent of 1992 to near the 50.2 percent of 1988, the low for a presidential election.
"We had a sharp decline in viewership in the debates, surveys are showing a disinterest in the campaigns, and there's a 40 percent reduction in network coverage of the campaign," Mr. Gans says. "Put them all together and you have a prescription for lower turnout."
Both presidential campaigns are worried about the negative effect polls can have on voter turnout.
"The closer to Election Day, the bigger the knot in my stomach gets about turnout," Clinton campaign spokeswoman Ann Lewis says.
"Turnout is very important in this election, and we're hoping that our TV ad campaign in the closing week will motivate our base of voters to get out and vote," says a Dole campaign official who requested anonymity.
The number of media polls has skyrocketed this year. A study by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research found 10 presidential trial heats between Sept. 1 and Election Day in 1968. This year there will be more than 125 head-to-head polls in the same period.
"There will be more than 300 different media polls this year. There's a danger here that we are conducting more than we need. They are the most abused tools in the political process," Miss Fitzpatrick says.
Media analysts who have been tracking the growing dependence on polls say the media's increasing use of polling has corrupted the political process.
"The television networks are putting polling numbers on the air much more frequently this year than in 1992," says Brent Baker, the executive director of the Media Research Center. …