Public opinion polls conducted just after the first presidential debate matter more than most.

They show how the crucial undecided voters have used the debate to join the ranks of the decideds. From now until Nov. 7, the outcome of this race may seem like a done deal, wrapped and ribboned.

Pollsters do more than check for voting preferences. They ask which candidate came across as more trustworthy, displayed more humor, or just wore a better tie. Sometimes viewers in focus groups are watched to see if they blink during a candidate's answer.

If anything, the science of polling these days measures voters' emotional fickleness rather than their thoughtful reflection. And if the results help at all, they lead voters to either follow the crowd or otherwise vote tactically.

Polls have power. They influence a candidate's tendency to pander. They point to where big donors will put their money. They shape opinion by probing opinion, a sort of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of public thought (measure it, and you alter what's being measured).

Are we really better informed by polls? Or have they become so common and so democracy-altering that a new perspective is needed?

Even prominent pollsters cry "foul" at the sheer number and types of polls. Frank Luntz, a noted pollster and focus-grouper, finds "the use of polling in this [election] cycle is completely and totally out of control." Polls reinforce the media's inclination to cover a complex campaign like a simple horse race. Voters should expect more from political coverage.

Polls can lie, too. Accuracy is compromised in the rush to overnight polls. Results are skewed if pollsters rush to meet a media deadline and don't reach a representative sampling. Or bias creeps into poll questions or the questioners.

Citizens' sense of identity is compromised when pollsters slice demographic groups so thin Americans can't see themselves as part of the larger community.

No wonder response rates to telephone polling are dropping. And it's not just because people avoid such calls in the evening; polls just don't seem that special anymore.

Yet for all of the negatives, some polls have value. Those that ask open-ended questions don't box in people's responses. That takes more time and money, but adds value to this great exercise of electing leaders.

Keeping watch on polls is like checking the stock market daily to track one's investments. The prudent advice is to approach the numbers with a long-term perspective.

Now that political polling has become overbearing, it's time for an overhaul.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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