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Parsing Polls

Two recent polls showed President Bush with a double-digit lead over Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., while others had the two contenders in a statistical dead heat. A columnist and pollster discuss how voters should view the divergent surveys.

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  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Two polls published this week show a substantial change of direction in the presidential race, with the wind firmly at the president's back. Time and Newsweek have double-digit leads — ten and 11 points respectively — for Mr. Bush. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in today's paper gives him a nine-point lead over Senator Kerry. But other polls conducted in the last week have shown a much smaller lead for the president, some even within the margin of error.

    So what is a voter to think of these divergent surveys? Do they suggest a serious shift in the race? To help us navigate the numbers, we're joined by Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, and by Joe Klein, columnist for Time magazine. Welcome to you both.

    Andy, we need a little consumer's guide to these different numbers as to what they mean and how significant are they.

  • ANDREW KOHUT:

    Well, clearly opinion has shifted in the president's favor. The polls that were conducted this week, there are four polls. There is a Bush margin of 49 percentage points.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Depending on the poll.

  • ANDREW KOHUT:

    Depending upon the poll. Most of these polls are statistically significant. That's the first time since March when it really hasn't been pretty much dead even.

    Now, these polls have been toned down a little bit compared to the polls that were conducted last week where we had larger margins, but what they suggest is the Republican Convention and the month of August campaign, the Republicans moved the needle in ways that the Democrats did not. And Bush's communication was much more effective in New York than John Kerry's was in Boston.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Is the discrepancy in numbers, four to nine points, is that significant, or is that just that the polls were taken at slightly different time periods?

  • ANDREW KOHUT:

    In part it reflects timing and also in part it reflects the fact that people are changing their minds. The polls are not as stable. They're more volatile than they are when opinion is fixed and not in flux. And opinion is now in flux.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    When you look at the internal considerations in the polls, what do you learn from that?

  • ANDREW KOHUT:

    A couple of big things come out of this. First, President Bush did improve his image in August and in the convention. We also see a more negative, perhaps more significantly a more negative view of John Kerry. Bush's favorability rating is up 5 percentage points. Kerry's negative rating is up 10 percentage points, and so a lot of this has do with the public having more doubts than they did about John Kerry.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Is that on any particular issue or across the board?

  • ANDREW KOHUT:

    It's the leadership dimension, certainly on the question of whether he is — as a strong leader but it's also across the board on a range of performance issues, the economy and Iraq. If you look at the polls closely, you see that Bush is now leading or even with Kerry on these dimensions, on these issues, even though the public still disapproves of the way Bush is handling these issues. So the conclusion to draw from this is this is — Bush is still vulnerable here, but these trends reflect more Kerry weakness than a shoring up of Bush's performance image.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Joe Klein in New York, how useful are numbers like this to you as a political columnist and commentator?

  • JOE KLEIN:

    Well, let me start off by just confessing an addiction. I'm totally addicted to the polls, but I am not very proud of myself for it. You know, they're first thing I look at in any given morning when the new one comes out. I'm all over it. But it's not that — I have great reservations about this. That's why I'm kind of ashamed of myself. I think that the smart way to use these polls is to see that there is a trend going on toward the president. It would be really stupid to put a numeric figure on it because, as Andy says, this situation is in flux.

    But I have a bigger problem than that with polling in general right now. Andy runs a really straight-up, responsible poll. But it's hard as hell to get a poll done these days when upwards of 90 percent of the public doesn't answer the phone or hangs up or refuses to participate. And so I think you see a lot of smudging at the edges. And I don't think that you get really true representative samples in a lot of these quick polls that a lot of media organizations and campaigns run.

    I also think in this year in particular, you have the central issue of this race being virtually unpollable. I think that the war in Iraq is really hard for people to respond to for very various reasons. There are real whipsaws going in both directions. On the one hand, people don't want to say anything negative about our troops or about the president in a time of war. And they don't feel quite competent to judge a very complicated issue that is on the other side of the world. At the same time, I think that people have a deep feeling in their gut that something's going wrong here, and so I — the polls have been totally useless to me in judging how the impact that the war is having on this race and on how people perceive the two candidates.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Let me ask Andy about that. Totally useless to judge public perceptions on an issue like Iraq?

  • ANDREW KOHUT:

    Oh, I don't think so. I mean, Joe and I have a lot of mutual respect, but I really disagree with him here. Look, the Democrats in this country who disapprove of the war or the decision to go to war at levels of 80 percent aren't reluctant to express their discontent. The trends on where we've gone from a majority of the public saying, this effort was worth it to a majority saying it's not worth it is — clearly reflects a change in sentiment.

    And public opinion about Iraq is very, very complicated. On the one hand, the public feels good and safer that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. On the other hand, the public questions the costs and has real reservations about some of the predicates of the war. It's not a simple thing. And opinion about the war in Iraq has proved to be — the support has proved to be relatively resilient, and as I said, pretty complicated.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Joe Klein, as part of our — go ahead. I'm sorry.

  • JOE KLEIN:

    I agree with Andy that it's really complicated, but when he talks about those 80 percent of Democrats, by his own statistics, you have 15 percent on each side that are real hard core partisan Democrats and Republicans and another 15 percent that are leaners. There are about 40 percent in the middle. And, as I said, I really don't think — I think if we depend, we journalists depend on the polls to tell us what people are thinking about Iraq, we're really not doing our job. I think that there is a very complicated quality to this that you can only get a sense of if you actually go out and talk to people and a lot of them.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    Let me ask you both: Do news organizations make good use of polls? Do they assess them correctly or not?

  • ANDREW KOHUT:

    Well, sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. Too much emphasis is on what the latest poll numbers show. Not enough emphasis is on what do these polls mean. I mean, this is a set of data indicators. And you can come to some intelligent, analytical, good analytical conclusions about public opinion, but very often the typical news report is just a recitation of a top line, the overall result and often that confuses more than it informs.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    That sounds, Joe Klein, like laziness.

  • JOE KLEIN:

    Yeah. Well, I think that polls are often what we do instead of thinking or analyzing. And, by the way, this isn't limited to the media. This is also rampant in campaigns, which place wild emphasis on polls and especially on focus groups. And I think that their analysis is often amateurish and faulty.

    Let's take the — one of the big examples of this year, the right track/wrong track figure, which Democrats in particular have been using as their strongest case that Bush is beatable, you know, 37 or 38 or 40 percent of the people believe we're on the right track. And the wrong track is in the upper 50s. But the people who think that we're on the wrong track, some of them oppose Bush's policies. Others think we're on the wrong track because abortion is legal and a whole bunch of other issues.

    You have to be really sophisticated about how you look at these things and also when it comes to focus groups, you have to be even more sophisticated because you have a bunch of strangers in a room who are trying to put on their best face for everybody else, including the person who is asking the questions.

  • TERENCE SMITH:

    All right, Joe Klein, Andy Kohut, thank you both very much.