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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

For Whom the Polls Toll in Bush-Gore Race

September 06, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

According to the latest Los Angeles Times/CNN/New York Times/CBS/TBS/PBS/Washington Post/Saturday Evening Post/NBC/CNBC/MSNBC/Christian Science Monitor/Publishers' Clearing House/Amazon/Yahoo!/ABC/BBC/CBC/ Rolling Stone/Marie Claire/Marvel Comics/ESPN/K-Earth 101 Oldies FM/Maui News/Mad magazine presidential poll, George W. Bush continues to lead Al Gore by 0.0000000001% among working women between the ages of 64 and 66 in states beginning with the letter H.

"Polls distort the truth," said an angry Gore spokesperson.

"We see this as further proof of the governor's appeal with a significant cross-section of the American public," a Bush staffer crowed.

And so it goes.

Mr. Bush leads Mr. Gore, 46.1% to 45.9%, according to 97 unregistered voters surveyed outside a Taco Bell in downtown Fargo.

Mr. Gore has overtaken Mr. Bush by a ninth of a percentage point since 6 o'clock Monday, according to a poll taken at 5 o'clock Tuesday.

Gov. Bush is losing ground among moderate Republican alfalfa farmers in western Wyoming, a new poll reveals.

Vice President Gore is showing increased popularity with unmarried men who dug the way Al kissed his old lady, USA Today has learned.


Day after day, we keep getting clubbed over the head with somebody's poll. Bush opens gap. Gore closes gap. It's a virtual dead heat as we head into September. Oops, Bush is opening up that crazy gap again.

Newspapers run articles about Bush leading or Gore gaining, as if actual facts were at their fingertips. TV anchors report poll percentages as if they're NASDAQ stock quotations or Williams sister tennis scores.

And we've got two more months of this.

Gore will duck a debate and a magazine will report that he's slipped in the polls by a 10th of a point. Bush will goof up in a debate and a radio call-in host will announce that 51% of Americans now believe the governor isn't quite as bright as he seemed to be in July.

Somebody will interview three people in Greater Chattanooga and report it as front-page news that Gore is running 2 to 1 ahead of Bush in southeastern Tennessee.

Of course, polls do have a "margin of error."

Sure they do. After all, out of every 1,000 people surveyed, 900 probably tell the truth. And 800 of those 900 would probably vote for the person they told the pollster they'd vote for. And 700 of those 800 are probably even registered to vote. And 600 of those 700 probably could name Bush's running mate.

But no matter how scientific or significant these polls may seem to be, they don't mean a damn thing, and we ought to stop reporting them as news. Gore leads Bush, 46% to 45%? Hey, nobody called me, man. Call me. I'll be home tonight. I'll put a couple of neighbors on the phone and we'll make it 47 to 46, Al.

"Gore Gains 2% Overnight!" The Times can report the next morning.

I mean, this poll stuff kills me. George Bush will probably take 38 states in November, and the first paragraph will begin: "Defying the polls. . . ."

Gallup, which runs one of my favorite polls, as polls go, is reporting that as of this week, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore are in a virtual deadlock. I love these virtual deadlocks; they're even more fun than actual deadlocks.

Our friends from Gallup took a survey of 1,019 adults, which is probably why the deadlock was virtual. You can't have an actual deadlock if you poll 1,019 people. I know. I've tried. I did have a deadlock once when I spoke to 1,018 people, but my editor told me: "You know, if you really want to know who's going to be president, go poll a 1,019th person."



Gallup's latest poll is incredibly specific. According to the New York Times, the results of the Gallup poll also indicate that: "Mr. Gore is smarter and better looking, but Mr. Bush is a better speaker and has a better sense of humor."

See? Polls do distort the truth. I interviewed 1,019 people myself this morning, and 510 of them told me Bush is a lot better looking.

"Which would be the better dinner partner?" Gallup also asked. Most men chose Bush, possibly misunderstanding the question and confusing him with Busch beer.

My advice is, please just ignore all the polls. If polls made any sense, Tom Dewey and Hubert Humphrey would have each been elected president, and UCLA's football team would be ranked ahead of Alabama.


Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail:

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