By Graham Earnshaw
WASHINGTON, Sept 29, Reuter – As the U.S. presidential election nears its climax, the news media are pumping out a blizzard of contradictory, sometimes useless poll numbers, political analysts say.
There are more opinion polls than ever this year as news organisations try to take the pulse of America and guess who will win on November 8 — Republican Vice President George Bush or Democrat Michael Dukakis.
As soon as their first debate was over last Sunday night, pollsters employed by television networks and newspapers were working the telephones, ringing people chosen at random from the phonebooks, asking them who won.
ABC television had Dukakis ahead 44 per cent to 36 per cent while CBS had Bush ahead 42 to 39. The Detroit News had Bush winning 38 to 33 per cent but Newsweek had Dukakis winning 42 to 41 per cent.
The media place enormous emphasis on these polls, even when they are done by rival organisations.
“Opinion polls are the media’s cotton candy,” said David Paletz, professor of political science at Duke University, in North Carolina. “It looks wonderful, but it does nothing for you and half an hour after you eat it you’re hungry again.”
Andrew Kohut, president of the pioneering Gallup poll organisation, said that between June 1 and mid-September, there were 43 national polls publicised by the media, compared to just seven in the same period in 1960.
“In each election we see more polling because news organisations are increasingly committed to doing this as a way of reporting,” Kohut said.
“There are more pollsters working for the candidates and playing prominent roles in the campaigns. It seems to be a process that gets more attention with each national election,” he added.
“Short of turning whole newspapers over to polls, it’s hard to imagine how they could be given more importance,” said Professor Bill Adams of George Washington University in Washington.
It’s difficult to find anyone who takes the opinion polls seriously.
“One day one poll will come out that has you 20 points ahead and the next day a poll will come out that has you 10 points behind,” said Dukakis spokeswoman Lorraine Voles.
“I think the most anyone can use these polls for is to measure momentum.”
The experts say the polls also appear to have little influence on voters.
In the jargon of the growing band of pollsters, the “underdog” effect, in which voters tend to feel sorry for the candidate trailing in the polls, is balanced by the “bandwagon” effect in which voters like to go with the winner.
Many polls publicised by the TV networks particularly are based on calls from viewers, straw polls which are universally dismissed as worthless by the experts.
“Call-in polls are trash, fun and interesting, but trash,” said Ted Smith, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“CNN (Cable News Network) did a call-in poll which showed that 84 per cent thought the press had treated (Republican Vice Presidential candidate Dan) Quayle unfairly. Now on that particular one, I called in myself seven times,” he said. REUTER GE DHH NNNN