The genuflection to campaign polling begins

The man who is "by all accounts the hottest pollster in the United States today" came to breakfast the other morning. His name is John Zogby. I read this publicity blurb when introducing Mr. Zogby and he laughingly admitted, "I wrote that."

But Zogby has a legitimate claim to this acclaim. In November 1996, after Zogby alone called the presidential election with pinpoint accuracy, The Washington Post was the source of this accolade: "All hail Zogby, the maverick predictor who beat us all." And other publications around the US have praised Zogby for his accuracy.

How does he do it? He's very thorough and he doesn't ever push people in the direction of answers. And, yes, he's had a bit of fortune along the way. It's as simple as that, he tells us. Polling is not an exact science, although here is a pollster who seems to be trying very hard to achieve precision.

Like most political reporters, I'm a bit uneasy when I'm around pollsters. Actually, what we are is ambivalent. We don't entirely trust them - and yet we keep listening to them and turning to them. And why?

Because pollsters provide the best political research on voter attitudes that we have available to us. Yes, we can go out and talk to people ourselves. But, obviously, we can't talk to enough people to make the voter projections that pollsters are able to make and which are accurate enough for us to continue using them as reference points.

When he came to breakfast, Zogby had just finished a poll for Reuters. He had no surprising revelations. George W. Bush and Al Gore were in front, and Mr. Bush was whipping Mr. Gore badly. Nothing new there.

But Zogby said he had a couple of poll findings that he considered significant:

*A majority - 53.7 percent - say that the nation is headed in the right direction; 35.8 percent feel things are "off on the wrong track." Gore's lead among the former group is weak, while Bush leads among the latter with 79.5 percent.

*While Gore leads among African-Americans with 73.8 percent, Bush's support in the group - 21.8 percent - is impressive. Here we must remember that Clinton's backing among black Americans is well up in the 90 percentiles in current polling.

After Zogby added that "Bush leads among really all other groups," I asked him whether he considered himself a "Republican pollster."

I said that so many pollsters these days work for clients of either one or the other party and let themselves be labeled as partisan researchers.

"No," he replied. He said he had clients in both parties and then added: "I'm a registered Democrat."

Frankly, I liked the sound of that. There are a number of what I call partisan-connected pollsters who are most reliable and highly regarded by those of us who refer to their polls. But when a pollster's findings seem to be putting a surprising glow of promise on the future of one of their clients, we reporters may well wonder about the objectivity involved.

Right here I should clearly identify myself: I'm a poll watcher who would, if it were possible, get rid of all polls.

Polls, in my view, too often take on a life of their own. They do influence the vote. My own post-election reporting has shown me that a lot of people, discouraged by a poll's findings, simply don't get out and vote for their favorite candidate.

If polls were completely unbiased and honest, I think I could abide them. But it is so easy for a pollster to shape a question in a way that will draw answers that will favor his client - or the candidate he favors.

I have no proof that there are any truly dishonest pollsters now. But a generation or so ago there was one nationally known and much-referred-to pollster who had the reputation in both Democratic and Republican camps for providing poll results that favored his candidate. Are there similarly rigged polls today? I see, from time to time, poll findings that make me wonder.

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