Face-to-Face Forum for Presidential Candidates New Poll Gives Voters More Substantial Information

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TEXAS, home of political legends Lyndon Johnson and John Tower, will be the site of what could be the first major event of the 1992 presidential election, the nation's first "deliberative" opinion poll.

If this new kind of poll is successful, it could lead to significant reform of the democratic political process, not only in the United States but in other countries, says the poll's creator.

Next Jan. 17-19, 600 "delegates" will take part in the National Issues Convention, sponsored by the Public Broadcasting Service and hosted by the University of Texas at Austin. The delegates will be brought here, expenses paid by PBS, to participate in a three-day face-to-face forum with participating presidential candidates of each party.

The randomly selected delegates, whose identities will be kept secret until the start of the convention, will be divided into two groups, one of self-identified Democrats, the other Republicans.

Delegates will be polled before the convention to identify issues of concern to them. After broad issue areas are defined, economic competitiveness or civil rights, for example, candidates will be asked to submit position papers on the chosen topics. Delegates will be sent these materials in advance, so when the convention begins they will be prepared to question candidates on their views.

At the end of the weekend, delegates will endorse presidential hopefuls based on both the breadth and depth of support for each candidate on each issue.

Officials of WETA, the Washington, D.C. PBS station and producer of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, were in Austin last Thursday to announce the event.

Richard Hutton, a WETA co-executive producer, said the convention, estimated to cost between $3 million and $4 million, is part of an effort to give greater depth to television coverage of the presidential race.

"The three days is part of a strategy of trying to focus on issues as opposed to personalities" of the candidates, Hutton said.

The concept of the deliberative opinion poll belongs to James Fishkin, chairman of the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Fishkin says the spread of the political primary solved the problem of how to distribute political influence equally among the electorate, but at the expense of substantive, face-to-face discourse between candidate and voter.

Current political polls try to predict the future based on what limited information the public can glean from the "filtering mechanisms of political advertising, shrinking sound bites and standard stump speeches," Fishkin said. …