Polls: they're useful tool, but take with a grain of salt. Bush called strong, effective

With election day only a week away and Democrat Michael Dukakis trailing in the polls, analysts are already looking for explanations of the expected outcome. For Democratic pollster Peter Hart, the answers are focus and message. Mr. Hart and other Democratic analysts agree that the Dukakis campaign never gave voters a single, coherent message, both in its attack on George Bush and in revealing where the candidate wanted to lead America.

``The Democrats had a wealth of things to go after, and they didn't take one path and just make it stick,'' Hart said during a breakfast meeting with reporters yesterday. ``You can't bring [a message] out there for a day, ask the question and disappear,'' he said. ``The Republicans knew exactly what arguments they were going to make. They told you in June, they made them in July, sharpened them in August, and kept them going in September.''

``What it really comes down to,'' Hart added, ``is George Bush has done a better job of making Mike Dukakis unfavorable [and] unlikable.'' He says he thinks Mr. Dukakis will finish competitively, but will unlikely break the tape in a ``photo finish.'' He sees a Dukakis loss, but not under a landslide.

Hart's polling company has just completed the last of a series of polls for the Chicago Tribune that focused on five key states. Mr. Bush now has a comfortable lead in Illinois (47 percent to 42 percent), California (48-40), Texas (52-42), and Florida (56-35). Bush also now leads in New York (46-42), although the difference is almost within the poll's statistical margin for error.

To trace how voter opinion has shifted in the last few months, Hart uses survey questions designed to assess the candidates' qualities.

On some issues, public opinion has been constant. Beginning in July, voters have consistently felt that Bush could handle a crisis better than Dukakis. Conversely, when voters have been asked who ``cares more about people like me'' and who has ``fresh ideas and a new approach,'' the Massachusetts governor has surpassed Bush throughout.

But there has been a reversal in voter sentiment on two questions: Who is more ``strong and decisive,'' and who is more ``effective, can get things done?''

In July - before the Republican convention - Dukakis was seen as stronger (41-29) and as more effective (36-31) than his opponent. By last week, however, Bush had moved into the lead in both areas. He is now seen as stronger and more decisive than Dukakis by a 43-to-30 margin, and as more able to get things done by a 42-to-29 margin in the five states surveyed.

These two qualities were the pivot points for much of the electorate, Hart says. But a series of questions designed as a ``comfort index'' (see the accompanying box) also illustrate shifting voter assessments of the candidates. Of his research Hart said, ``What it tells me is there are two dimensions at play here. On the professional dimension - `Whom do I count on in terms of putting trust in another person's hands?' - Bush comes out ahead. His jumps are bigger, his leads are bigger. But when you come to the personal elements, the personal-affinity kinds of things, such as [who you would want as a] neighbor and [as your child's sports team] coach ... it's still relatively [close].''

Hart disagrees with the notion that a strong economy and a world largely at peace have made it impossible for the Democrats to win.

``You don't come into July with a 12-point lead ... and end up in a situation where you can say it was the year that worked against you,'' Hart said. ``The Democrats were right in the middle of this fight. There wasn't a single force that said the Republicans should have been the odds-on favorite in this race.''

Hart, who thinks this is one of the most negative campaigns he has ever seen, sees a potential problem for Vice-President Bush should he win the election. ``He's not going to have many friends,'' the pollster observes. ``The potentiality of paying a price and paying a price heavily is there.''

This assessment is shared by other political analysts who think Bush, unlike Ronald Reagan in 1980, may have little, if any, mandate to lead the nation after such a negative campaign.

``This is a person who is saying, `Vote for me because you'll hate the other guy,''' Hart said of Bush. He laments the fact that many votes will be cast against a candidate rather than for one. ``We have a plurality of people who say that their vote is really based upon the other guy's shortcomings,'' he says.

Q: Who would you prefer as your ... Financial adviser July 1988 October 1988 Bush 39% Bush 50% Dukakis 30% Dukakis 28% Guide in the woods Dukakis 33% Bush 40% Bush 27% Dukakis 31% Character witness in court case Dukakis 38% Bush 40% Bush 27% Dukakis 33% Neighbor Dukakis 34% Bush 37% Bush 23% Dukakis 32% Boss Dukakis 44% Bush 43% Bush 32% Dukakis 38% Coach of your child's team Dukakis 42% Bush 39% Bush 23% Dukakis 38% Source: Peter Hart

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