Magazine article Insight on the News

Are Pollsters Bellwethers - or Weather Vanes?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Are Pollsters Bellwethers - or Weather Vanes?

Article excerpt

And they're off! The media may cover candidates like horses out of the starting gate, but try to probe below the surface of the electorate to find a pulse.

Before Sen. Arlen Specter's presidential campaign went on hiatus, a rival for the Republican nomination, Patrick Buchanan, noted that the Pennsylvanian stood at 1 percent in some polls. "With a 3 percent margin of error," Buchanan cracked, Specter "might not even exist."

Polls don't determine the being or nothingness of would-be chief executives, but they have become an integral part of American politics. While millions of dollars are spent identifying opinions of the electorate, the numbers at this stage in the presidential contest forecast very little about November -- ask Gerald Ford or George Bush, who were on top of the polls less than a year before they were evicted from the Oval Office. Polls really are "a snapshot in time on a race that can be very fluid," says Karlyn Keene Bowman, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Clients pay pollsters for this snapshot -- accurate, reliable information that can be used to devise strategy and tactics. For office seekers without firm philosophical grounding -- skeptics list President Clinton among this number -- polls may be more master than servant. Politicians with a firmer foundation use them as a means rather than an end -- and as the 1996 presidential campaign lurches into its next phase, polls may be used to justify an increase in take-no-prisoners rhetoric.

"I actually think this is going to be the most negative election since 1964 and perhaps even worse," says Republican pollster Frank Luntz, a key architect of the GOP's "Contract With America." Luntz, who was 1992s wunderkind pollster for Buchanan and Ross Perot, says that Democrats, emboldened by recent numbers showing House Speaker Newt Gingrich's popularity sinking, will focus their attack on the portly frame of the controversial Georgian. At the same time, the GOP smells blood and will not be shy about exploiting the poll-perceived weaknesses of Clinton.

"I have full confidence that Republican pollsters will continue to test important presidential attributes such as character, leadership, trustworthiness and vision for America," says GOP pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, "as well as who is best able to manage the federal government and who will cut wasteful spending." This, she tells Insight, will "put meat on the simple bones of Clinton vs. Dole vs. Gramm vs. Alexander."

Ah, and it will be red meat. Polls show that Clinton is vulnerable on questions of character and Gingrich is vulnerable on issues of ethics, compassion and general likability. Once the polls have isolated the weak spots, the strategists and media consultants will hone in for the kill as remorselessly as any raptor in Jurassic Park.

Not all of this may immediately be apparent in the daily media. For the next several months -- at least until after the inaugural primary in New Hampshire which will shake out the ranks of Republican presidential aspirants -- the fourth estate likely will be serving its customers a steady diet of horse-race coverage, showing the fluctuating poll numbers of the respective candidates rather than focusing on how much potential voters understand about issues or what they think motivates the candidates.

"They'll pretty much be covering who's ahead" Bowman tells Insight. "They won't go too much beyond that. This just tends to be what we have at this stage in an election year and it's too bad."

That is "the easiest way" for the media to follow campaigns, explains Fitzpatrick, 28, a highly regarded young light in the GOP campaign firmament. "But what people really think about and how they eventually vote hinges more on things like attributes testing" (where candidates are measured for everything from foreign-policy acumen to friendliness) "and issue priority" (where voters are asked to rank their concerns), than it does on who is leading at the eighth-of-a-mile post in an imaginary head-to-head matchup, she adds. …

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