Polls: reading blank minds

It's bad enough that most voters don't vote. In 1998, the turnout was 36 percent, along with 1986 the lowest since 1942, when a lot of Americans were away fighting the war.

But now most Americans won't even respond to opinion polls. The response in some recent polls fell as low as 20 percent, which makes you wonder what significance these surveys have.

That is very serious because a lot of important decisions are based on opinion polls.

On the basis of a quickie Richard Morris poll, President Clinton was said to have made the fateful - almost fatal - decision not to tell the truth about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

We in the media who think we know what people think need to be reminded not only that people often don't think what we think they think, but a lot of times they're not giving much thought at all to the political contests that hold the politicians and us spellbound.

For example, the Shorenstein Media Center at Harvard's Kennedy School asked people which candidate they supported and added, "or haven't you picked a candidate yet?"

"No Candidate Yet" won was the landslide winner, with 64 percent.

George W. Bush, who's called the front-runner, got 16 percent.

The Vanishing Voter Project, as it's called, also reported that only 19 percent were paying close attention to the campaign.

And, heart-wrenching for Sen. John McCain, 77 percent didn't know whether he supports or opposes campaign finance reform.

To us inside the Beltway, that is simply unfathomable.

And, even more heart-wrenching, 63 percent of respondents found the presidential campaign boring.

Now, this is quite unsettling. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote about "mystery voters" who may decide the presidential race, but who have been sending contradictory signals.

Un-focus groups, you might call them.

When a political pundit has to write, "Bush has held a steady (though recently diminishing) lead over both Democratic candidates," or "Bradley has crossover appeal ... he runs eight points better than congressional Democrats among college-educated voters," or "Gore has more problems with white men; Bradley with white women," then you know how unsure we are as we try to read the minds of people who haven't made up their minds, and won't make up their minds, just to help the analysts analyze.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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