Matters of fact, figure and fancy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 October, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 October, 2000, 12:00am

AS a general rule, Americans love a winner. They also have an abiding affection for statistics. (The chartists have managed to reduce the subtleties of soccer to figures. On Wednesday, the US women's team lost Olympic gold to Norway three goals to two. It wasn't that bad, one local commentator optimistically suggested, the Americans won 15-3 in terms of shots on goal.) Combine these two national passions, and we get the cult of the political poll.

With the presidential election just under six weeks away, America's ranks of pollsters are in their quadrennial frenzy, feeding a public that just can't get enough. Each night there are tracking polls, showing of late, ironically, that George W. Bush and Al Gore are so close that they are inside the margin of statistical error.

Then each day there are new issue polls. In one of the latest, Americans show themselves to be keen to ensure that the US military remains the most powerful on earth, yet not so keen on the issue as to make it pivotal to the current election. Instead, education, health care and retirement are the issues taxing Americans.

Then there are the more personal questions. Gallup recently reported that women generally think Mr Gore is better looking, whereas men prefer Mr Bush's boyish features. Intriguingly, when it comes to voting, women generally intend to back Mr Gore and men Mr Bush. The differences, however, merge when it comes to intelligence. Similar numbers of women and men believe Mr Gore to be smarter. They are mixed, however, on who would be a better dinner date.

There are even polls about polls. On its Web site, the giant Gallup polling machine admits that 'polls can seem mysterious', before going to great lengths to describe how, with careful random selection, 1,000 Americans can represent the presidential inclinations of a nation of 273 million people. They acknowledge they have a lot of work to do in the public relations stakes. 'People generally believe the results of polls, but do not believe in the scientific principles,' Gallup states.

Politicians, of course, famously bag the process, particularly when they are losing. Mr Bush promises leadership, not 'poll-driven calculus'. 'Who believes polls?' asked Democratic fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe, when quizzed about Mr Gore's shabby performance for much of the year.

Not surprisingly, both are far from the truth. The art of polling plays a key part in both the internal Republican and Democratic machines, judging everything from the weightiest of issues to the nuances of fashion sense and presentation.

More than anyone, President Bill Clinton has typified the increasing trend. In his first two years in office, his predecessor - and George W's father - George Bush spent US$216,000 (about HK$1.7 million) on internal polling. Under the controversial poll-hungry adviser Dick Morris, Mr Clinton spent about US$2 million - nearly 10 times as much - in his first year alone. A politician with finely honed instincts, polling is a key part of Mr Clinton's make-up as he constantly seeks to keep his party firmly in the political centre. He seems to like to know precisely what he can get away with.

It was Mr Morris who discretely organised polls to determine whether Mr Clinton should publicly confess to any affair when the Monica Lewinsky scandal first broke. The results suggested he should, but Mr Clinton spent eight months trying to stare it all down before finally acknowledging he 'misled' people. Rightly or wrongly, he remains in office with very high job-approval polls. His personal-approval ratings remain very low, however.

As the course unfolds, it is clear that a string of healthy results - like those chalked up by Mr Gore as he catches up with Mr Bush - can lend an air of vigour and confidence to a campaign machine that may otherwise change little from one day to the next. The reverse is also true. One reason politicians fear the public acknowledgement of polls is their raw power, especially at election time. By the time voters actually make it to the polling booth, every politician knows they like to think they are backing winners.

Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent

Graphic: inusglo