Watching those who watch public opinion

As pollsters rush to gauge reaction to Starr testimony, their craft comes under scrutiny.

Kenneth Starr's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee today follows the obligatory oath, "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"

When the independent counsel is finished, pollsters will take the pulse of America, while everyone else will try to decipher their findings with a similar question: "Do polls tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"

Largely because of the key role of public opinion in this impeachment process, poll-taking itself has become an issue in America's debate over the Lewinsky scandal. With President Clinton's job-performance ratings barely budging since the allegations broke, the impeachment hearings are the last best chance for public opinion to shift.

Politicians, of course, routinely claim they pay no heed to polls - and even deride them. Of late, they've criticized polls for failing to foresee the Democrats' strong showing in the US House in the midterm elections. And when they disagree with poll results, there's always the tendency to disparage poll-taking itself, as former Vice President Dan Quayle did when he said: "People are far more turned off with Bill Clinton ... than all of these public-opinion polls are expressing."

Yet public-opinion experts insist their polls are more scientifically designed, more professionally handled, and more accurate than ever before.

Exhibit 1: An overwhelming majority of leading polls concur that Americans don't want this president impeached (roughly two-thirds "no," one-third "yes").

"From all parts of the country and all kinds of media, we have all found the same result," says Susan Pinkus, director of the Los Angeles Times poll. "In a way, that validates us all."

A glimpse in time

But as the impeachment inquiry unfolds, other experts say middle ground can be reached by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of polls.

A few tips: Polls are only a snapshot in time, not a predictor of the future. They are best used to assess basic attitudes. They are less successful at assessing complicated issues, addressing why people feel the way they do, or identifying what circumstances might change people's opinions.

"Polls are very accurate in gauging public sentiment from a limited number of options, but terrible at hypotheticals," says Cliff Zukin, director of the Star Ledger/Eagleton Poll and a public-policy expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "They are very limited at determining 'what if.' "

An example, he says, is the options most polls give respondents for the Clinton crisis: (a) impeach, (b) censure, (c) resign, (d) no punishment. Polls will scrupulously reflect the views of the public at large, but they are less successful in revealing underlying attitudes that shape those views.

"Once surface attitudes are established, it's hard for poll questioners to delve much deeper, because they run into too many possible permutations," says Thomas Guterbock of the University of Virginia's Center for Survey Research. "To get more understanding of why people feel the way they do,... you have to use other techniques." These include focus groups, he says, which are costly and time-consuming.

A checklist for readers

Experts offer this checklist to help assess a poll's validity.

* Disregard any poll in which respondents are self-selected. These include call-in polls, mail-in polls, and 900-number polls.

* Stick with reputable polls that have gained widespread acceptance. Some national polls are Gallup, Roper, Harris, or CNN, CBS/New York Times, and ABC.

* Bring a healthy skepticism to polls that don't divulge the questions asked, statistical margins of error, how respondents were chosen, how they were conducted (phone or in person), and when.

* Watch out for who is paying for or sponsoring a poll.

* Be alert to the bias of journalists or others who attempt to interpret partial poll results. Stick to media that have poll editors, who can compare different polls on the same subject.

Pay attention to respondents' ages and where in the US they live, urges John Blydenburgh of Clark University's Public Affairs Research Center. "Details such as these can help you sort out how competent the respondents are."

With all this as a backdrop, political scientists say the current impeachment hearings may play out differently than other high-profile investigations in which public opinion changed dramatically, if slowly. Most notably, those two investigations were of Richard Nixon during Watergate and the Reagan administration during Iran-contra. Both presidents enjoyed high approval ratings when inquiries began, and both watched ratings drop as details of their scandals unfolded.

By comparison, the American public already knows most of the key details of the Lewinsky scandal. What will be interesting, observers say, is how interpretations of those details change as key players are introduced.

"Starr is now one of the least popular figures in America," says Rob Simmons, president of the Baltimore/Washington chapter of the AAPOR. But as a recent AAPOR symposium pointed out, "If Starr turns out to give a credible performance in which he is seen to be more reasonable, that could change the perception of this scandal overnight."

For now, Republican lawmakers who say they will ignore public-opinion polls proceed at their own peril - as the Nov. 3 election proved, many say.

The GOP "should not be shooting the messenger of polls that disagree with them," says Frank Newport of the Gallup poll. "They need to take the public into account, not to slavishly follow what they say but to realize they need to be brought along.... If they can't move the public, they should move closer to where the public is, because in a democracy [the people] are the ultimate rulers."

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