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Voter Volatility Defied Pre-Primary Polls

February 17, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ George Bush’s surprising showing in the New Hampshire primary marks a volatility in voter decision-making that may continue to trouble pollsters as the 1988 campaign unfolds, analysts said Wednesday.

Pre-election polls released as late as Tuesday morning generally missed the extent of the last-minute swing that gave Bush his 9-point victory over Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, they said. Most surveys had indicated a dead heat.

″It’s the timing and the volatility of this. Nothing is anchored,″ said Andrew Kohut, president of the Gallup Organization, whose final New Hampshire poll had put Bush 8 points behind Dole. ″There’s a lot of bouncing around.″

The problem is an old one for pollsters: Their surveys are out of date as soon as they are completed, and cannot account for voter turnout or for very late changes brought about by advertising or campaign organization.

″For many years there has been a feeling that pre-primary polling is hazardous to one’s health, in the early states in particular. This year, on the Republican side, that’s how it was,″ said Laurily Epstein, pollster for NBC News. ″People change their minds, and you can’t poll for that.″

Epstein and others noted that the polls had correctly tracked trends in the race, if not anticipating the precise outcome. All showed Bush well ahead last month, then slipping badly after Dole and Pat Robertson beat him in the Iowa caucuses Feb. 8. They had Dole taking a narrow lead by Friday, then Bush rebounding to a thin edge during the weekend and Monday.

″The tracking polls understated the size of his win. But tracking polls are only an indication of expectations beforehand,″ said Warren Mitofsky, polling chief for CBS News. ″The thing that polls can do best is show you direction. It showed the direction, the movement to Bush the last few days.″

The final CBS News-New York Times survey, done Sunday and Monday, had a 4- point lead for Bush, 34 to 30 for Dole; The final result was within the survey’s margin of sampling error of 6 points. The last ABC-Washington Post poll, with results from Saturday through Monday, had it 32 to 30 for Dole; the Boston Globe had it 31-30 for Bush, and the Boston Herald-WBZ poll had it 32-30 for Bush. NBC News eschewed late polling.

The greatest gap was for Gallup, whose last poll, done from Friday to 4 p.m. Sunday, had Dole with 35 percent and Bush with 27. Kohut said the dichotomy between that poll and the Bush-Dole result would prompt changes at Gallup: later polling, if possible, and greater sensitivity to the vagaries of candidates’ support.

In retrospect, Kohut said, two-thirds of Bush’s backers had told Gallup they supported the vice president strongly, while only half of Dole’s supporters said they felt strongly about him. The finding was an indication of Bush’s ability to turn out his vote, and Dole’s weakness in that area.

″We knew Bush’s support was strong and Dole’s was soft, but we didn’t put enough emphasis on that,″ Kohut said. ″The lesson is that even if a front- runner’s lead seems stable, it remains vulnerable to last-minute changes if it is soft. Not pointing that out was a real failure on our part.″