Information Politics

We usually look at election polling data in terms of who leads and trails in the horse race, and among what voter groups, or parts of the track.

Assertion One: The horses may be less important to watch than the spectators.

Assertion Two: Great progress has been made in the information technology of elections in the past two decades.

Assertion Three: The sociology of politics, the nature of subgroups that make up the winning and losing aggregates, is still in a primitive stage.

On the whole, elections are better researched, their dynamics better understood and reported on than ever before. As recently as 1980 there was only a handful of major survey research entities, including the TV network and newspaper shops, who followed key races and the presidential election. Key research was proprietary, paid for and closely held by the candidates or their parties. For the 1980 election cycle, as a lone political reporter - with a few key allies inside the national party structure, pollsters who handled a stable of candidates across the country, and colleagues covering state politics for their newspapers or wire services - I could put together surveys of the House, Senate, and presidential electoral college races at key intervals. That was about the state of the art.

Today so much information is out there - for example, the survey findings that Bill Clinton slightly increased his edge over Bob Dole in Sunday's debate - that there there are few places for the candidates to hide.

The instant commentary can be good. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution could be seen on public television and cable giving solid assessments of what the first debate accomplished. Political junkies can access computer on-line information for updates on races everywhere.

Political analysis in America is becoming as institutionalized as the coverage of professional football. The election-day exit polls will yield an enormous amount of data about who voted for whom and why. Over the past two decades we've seen a democratization of information about elections.

Polls rob voters of nothing: If they affect turnout, so does the weather. In this election, any large lead for Clinton could add to the numbers voting against him. Voters may think he's not that much better than Dole.

What we need to know more about is the voters themselves. The basic survey categories by age, income, sex, religion, and region are essential. But they are not evocative enough. In recent days we've heard about "soccer moms" as a key group in this election: women with busy, active schedules to juggle who are backing Clinton more than are men. Now that's interesting.

Assertion Four: The effective units of American political opinion may be no larger than 4 or 5 percent of the whole. This number suggested itself when I happened on the enduring appeal of the study of the Latin and Greek languages and civilization among that proportion of students as I researched the 1980 election.

"Majority" and "minority" describe how voters divide. They say more about the voters than about the candidate or policy. Candidates compete to build coalitions of minorities. The constants in American opinion are not based on candidates or policies, but on broad values. These lend a remarkable consistency. The old-time conservative coalition in Congress between Republicans and conservative Democrats has surfaced in the form of Republican gains in the South. This is more a change in party identification than in the underlying voter values of the region.

In politics the crucial race is in the stands, not on the track.

*Richard J. Cattani is editor at large of the Monitor.

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