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Debate Opinions Need Time To Form

October 6, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The burning curiosity to know immediately who ``won″ a presidential debate is at odds with the way voters form opinions and how they are best measured.

Instant polling by the television networks after Tuesday’s debate suggested Democrat Al Gore was the winner over Republican George W. Bush, but that the overall race for the White House hadn’t changed. Voters take time sorting through these conflicting impressions.

``The instant polls are useful in that they give you an instant reaction to the debate, but the real impact of the debate may not be known for a while,″ said Murray Edelman, president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

``People talk about the issues, read other people’s opinions and think it over.″

Carol Alvord, a Kansas registered nurse, thought Bush did well in the 90-minute debate and that it helped change her image of him as ``a hayseed.″ But she wasn’t completely sold.

Jeff Gull, a Connecticut law clerk, thought Vice President Gore did better and said he and his friends thought Bush seemed a little defensive. Georgia businessman Harris Blackwood wants to support Gore, but was troubled by his statement about a trip to Texas, where Bush is governor.

For the record, Gore was the winner Tuesday in three of four network ``instant″ polls Tuesday, though TV news anchors dutifully reported that the race was unchanged based on the surveys.

The effect on the race may not be known for a while, although a tracking poll by CNN-USA Today-Gallup released Thursday suggested Gore has opened a lead since the debate.

The best-known case of delayed reaction is President Ford’s 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter when he said Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union.

There was little reaction at the time, recalled political scientist and pollster Michael Traugott.

``Polling done the next day showed no reaction, but throughout the course of the next news cycle, there was quite a lot of coverage of this so-called goof,″ Traugott said. ``Three days later, polls showed it was a widely held belief that Ford had made an error.″

Ford’s momentum to catch up with Carter later slowed.

But the news business with its Internet sites and intense TV competition isn’t willing or able to wait a few days. On one network, each candidate’s statement was tracked by an Internet-linked ``focus group″ reacting moment by moment in an on-screen graph tracking their sentiments.

Internet polls allow Web surfers to register opinions, even as officials from the political parties urge followers to jam the unscientific online polls.

``I think ordinary people can tell the difference on that kind of stuff,″ said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Some debate watchers were unlikely likely to change their opinions after watching TV analysis of the event.

``I watched a focus group of those wishy-washy ones,″ Republican Chandra Prinzbach, 29, of Depew, N.Y., near Buffalo, referring to swing voters. ``I thought it was all bogus, they said Gore won.″

For Gull, 30, of Norwalk, Conn., Gore did better, although the makeup job that made his cheeks appear rosy provided ``comic relief.″

``Maybe he’s morphing into Ronald Reagan,″ said the independent voter.

Neither candidate impressed Blackwood, 40, of Gainesville, Ga.

The ``Georgia Democrat″ who tends to swing between the parties in national elections wants to vote for Gore but was still mulling over his reference to traveling to Texas with James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, during a fire disaster. Gore later said he probably was confused about another emergency trip to Texas.

``I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt,″ Blackwood said. ``He travels about half the days of the year.″

But Blackwood was still wrestling over what he thought about such a slip of the tongue.

``After what happened for the last eight years,″ he said. ``I’d rather somebody say ‘I don’t know’ than tap dance around an answer.″

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ Will Lester covers polling and politics for The Associated Press.

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