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Elections vs. polls: There's a difference

In a pile of LETTERS that greeted me on my return from vacation was this one, from an old friend who possesses a lot of political wisdom:

"There has been much talk about polls showing strong support for Clinton. It seems to me that the validity and significance of this polling needs to be examined and interpreted with more care and depth. Basically, would not opinion polling have more gravity if the polling were done of persons who were voters at the 1992 and 1996 elections, rather than measuring the general public?"

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Within hours after receiving that letter, I was able to ask that question of Mark Penn, the president's pollster, who was our Monitor breakfast guest. Mr. Penn said he'd done such polling and responses were in line with the general polling results. Then he added that people who don't vote usually won't admit it. When asked, they will say that, "Oh, sure, I voted."

So what I got from Penn was that it was difficult, if not impossible, to get a reliable poll of those who truly were voters.

My friend backed up his plea for a "voters" poll in this way: "It should be more widely known and recognized that Clinton received 43 percent of the popular vote in 1992 and 49.2 percent in 1996. In 1992, 55.1 percent of the voting-age population voted, and in 1996 that figure dropped to 48.9 percent. Unless my math is out of kilter, these figures show that Clinton was elected by 23.7 percent in 1992 and 24.1 percent in 1996 of the voting-age population. That indicates something far short of an overwhelming mandate for Clinton. Furthermore, given his behavior, it is stretching credulity to think that there has been a groundswell of support moving toward Clinton from voters who did not vote for him in either of these elections."

"Should not," he forcefully concluded, "the opinions of voters have greater weight in the political world than the 50 percent or more of the population who did not vote?"

After listening to this convincing argument, I'm left with this uncomfortable thought: Whether the current polls really accurately reflect public opinion or not, they are being used by just about everyone as a reference point to measure our public figures, including our presidents and presidential candidates.

The president certainly believes them. More than one source close to the White House has said that President Clinton governs by polls. If he wants to do this, he first takes a poll. If he wants to do that, he summons his pollster to provide the needed guidance.

I asked Penn if this is true. He didn't deny he was playing that role. But he said polling was only one of several references Mr. Clinton uses before making a decision. "Clinton makes his own decisions," Penn said.

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Here, I'm tempted to say: Although Clinton doubtless makes his own decisions, it seems to me that more than any other president that I've kept close tabs on, this president relies heavily on seeking out the best possible political direction to go.

I'm reminded of political consultant Richard Morris's disclosure of a conversation he had with Clinton when the president was wondering if he might clear up the mess he was in by apologizing to the public. According to Mr. Morris, Clinton asked him to take a poll. And when Morris came by a few days later and told Clinton the public would forgive him for his sex excesses but not for perjury, he said the president responded, "Well, then, we just must win."

I asked Penn about that Morris poll. He said he knew nothing about it. I asked if he hadn't been curious that another poll was being taken by someone else in the White House. No, he said. Hadn't he talked to Morris about it? No, he said, "I don't know if even such a poll was taken."

Well, Morris is due in for a Monitor breakfast tomorrow - and we'll have to ask him all about it!

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