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If They Took A Poll About Polls

Is it any wonder that there wasn't much enthusiasm being shown over a race where we had known for months who would win? Very early on, the pollsters were telling us that President Clinton would win handily over Bob Dole - and they kept telling us that right up to election time. The hard campaigning had changed nothing. "Clinton in a walk," we were told.

So with no great zest we went out and voted, already knowing the result. And then we turned on the TV, at least for a while, to watch the anticipated Clinton victory become validated by the actual count. If we stayed up, it was to see how the Senate and House contests or other local races or issues were being decided.

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But the pollsters, as they so often do, had taken all the suspense - all the fun - out of the presidential election.

When I was a youngster back in the '20s, I got the distinct impression, mostly from my father, that polls weren't permissible in the way we elected people in our country. He told me that polls interfered with our democratic processes. He said they were evil, and I think he even told me they were illegal. Dad may have overstated the bad status of polls, but I have never gotten over the feeling that he was right.

Pollsters claim they are useful, that they very accurately portray voter attitudes and intentions. They go on to trumpet that politicians and political writers couldn't get along without them and that the public is greatly benefited by the information they mine and bring to the surface.

I know that as a newsman I have leaned heavily on poll results as a reference point for telling readers what candidate appears to be winning and who is behind. Over the years the polls have become very reliable. But when I was covering presidential campaigns, I always preferred to do my own checking on voter attitudes. That was when I was going all around the country, talking to a lot of people in different walks of life. More recently, I have ceased this grass-roots reporting. So, regretfully, I do rely heavily - and doubtless too much - on the findings of polls.

But my suspicion is that Dad was right - that polls are anathema to the voting process. I can't prove it, but I think these polls take on a life of themselves. For example, a poll that shows Mr. Clinton is ahead of Mr. Dole (as polls actually were showing nine months ago when the campaign began) will have some kind of an effect on the race. It could dampen the spirits of those in the Dole camp and encourage the Clintonites. Or it could spur the efforts of the Dole people and make for complacency in the Clinton camp.

If these polls persist, showing Clinton's big lead still present at election time (as was the case), it could well cause many Dole supporters to stay home, saying "what's the use?" Or it could cause Clinton's fans to decide that their votes weren't needed.

I'm not sure of what poll results do. But they do something that distorts our process. They become a part of the election. And, again, I can't prove it, but I think that these insertions of poll results and findings can even turn elections completely around. We'll never know.

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Polls are likely here to stay, much to my regret, particularly since they are taking all the fun out of these presidential elections by telling us who will win before we vote.

Sometimes all we have to hope for is that the pollsters will, somehow, be embarrassed by the outcome. Actually, the popular vote result between Clinton and Dole was closer than the pollsters had predicted - but not enough to cause any of them to express any shame over their performance.

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