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News
It's the polls, stupid
October 9, 1996: 11:32 a.m. ET

Even pollsters admit polls are volatile and mean little in the long run
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) -- The latest political polling numbers say Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole may be staging a stunning comeback. Or do they?
     A quick look at two prominent surveys of likely voters will give you an idea of how contradictory these snapshots can be.
     A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday showed Republican Bob Dole trailing President Bill Clinton, 34 percent to 56 percent -- a 22 point chasm. But another poll, out Tuesday from Reuters, showed the former senator closing the gap to just 5 percentage points. And other polls show the seesaw continuing to wobble.
     So what should you believe?
     The answer, many experts say, is that polls explain momentary blips in political opinions. Aside from giving pundits something to talk about, the results of what 700 or 1,000 Americans think at a certain moment usually do not have much effect on the outcome of an election.
     "Polling done for the purposes of publicizing results is meaningless," argues Republican pollster Steve Wagner. "And I think the media are guilty of spending too much time on polls… People don't vote based on polls."
     Of course, that is exactly what Republicans hope. Especially when they see Newsweek magazine's cover ask: "Is It Over?" After all, there's still nearly a month left until Election Day.
     The skepticism about polls, however, is not limited to Dole backers. Democrats are equally cautious about lending too much credibility to poll results.
     Democratic pollster Peter Hart says that polls these days tend to be taken at the most volatile periods in an otherwise calm election - the numbers are dramatic, but abnormal.
     At the same time, the bulk of the polls released in recent weeks are done through a process called tracking, which records voters' opinions over a two or three-day period that is constantly moving forward. The danger here is that a good day for Clinton will be replaced by a good day for Dole.
     "The difference with tracking polls is they are like windshield wipers," Hart says. "They brush out the oldest set of numbers and brush in the newest."
     Accurate or not, even pollsters who believe that every bit of information should be flashed over the news wires and TV screens admit that, in the end, there is only one poll that counts -- and it's taken on Nov. 5.Back to top

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