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Pollsters Groping for Questions

A complex campaign and a crowded field make the election a hard one for those who weigh public opinion.

August 13, 2003|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

In a normal election, polling offers some measure of clarity, an imperfect assessment of who is ahead and who is lagging at a given point in the campaign.

But the gubernatorial recall campaign is so complex, the field so crowded with candidates, that it may prove impossible for pollsters to sort through the confusion and gauge how the race is shaping up, according to polling experts and campaign officials.

In this race, experts say, be cautious of polls.

"The pollsters may be more confused than the voters themselves," said K.B. Forbes, spokesman for the Bill Simon campaign. "Their margin of error may be higher, and I think they may be scratching their heads."

Polling, Forbes said "will not be a reliable indicator."

But clearly, the pollsters will be heard. Though the deadline for filing was not until Saturday, polls were already being taken. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll taken over the weekend reported that Gov. Gray Davis was likely to be recalled and replaced by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

That poll, conducted as the field was crystallizing, underscores the difficulty of polling in a fast-moving campaign with two interconnected ballot questions and a gargantuan list of candidates. The poll solicited opinions on some candidates who ultimately stayed out the race -- former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez and state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

David W. Moore, senior editor of the Gallup Poll, said the organization had wanted to get an "early read" on how people perceived the prospective candidates. The pollsters asked respondents about individual candidates rather than asking them to choose among the contenders -- a better way to cope with the prospect that people would choose not to run.

"I think it provides a pretty valid look at the way people are reacting initially to the candidates," Moore said. "It doesn't necessarily mean that, a week later, after things have settled down and the campaigns have begun, we would get the same results."

Polling in California is never easy. It is a huge, diverse state where a good chance exists that the person picking up the phone will not speak the same language as the pollster making the call.

Compounding the difficulties are the unanswered questions surrounding the race. No one knows what the turnout will be on Oct. 7. Previous special elections, experts warn, are not a reliable guide for a first-ever recall election that is getting international attention.

Beyond that, a poll may not be able to account for uncertainty in the voting booth. Those who oppose the recall election may vote against it on Question 1 and then go home, not grasping that they are still free to choose from the list of candidates on Question 2.

"People will say, 'I voted against the recall; therefore I shouldn't go to the second question,' "said Henry Brady, professor of political science and public policy at UC Berkeley.

"It's going to be very hard for polling to get at what the degree of confusion will be. It's a real big question. Right now, I don't think the polling means that much except to tell you that Arnold Schwarzenegger has name recognition, and Cruz Bustamante has some, and that Gray Davis is roundly disliked." (Bustamante, the lieutenant governor, is the most prominent Democrat in the race.)

Imperfect Science

With roughly 150 names likely to be on the ballot, pollsters will need to identify the major candidates for voters -- an imperfect science. The alternative would be to recite the entire list. Brady tries to imagine that conversation: "Of these 193 candidates, which do you like best? Let me read you the list. Are you still there? Are you still there?"

Crafting the polling question is a puzzle in its own right. Paul Maslin, pollster for Davis, made an attempt in a recent interview, coming up with a question that splits into different parts, caveats and subsets of major candidates.

There would need to be some sort of explanation: The state plans to hold an election on Oct. 7 involving the recalling of Davis. A second question on the ballot will offer a list of candidates vying to succeed the governor if he is recalled.

The candidate who gets the most votes on the second question would replace Davis if he is ousted.

That out of the way, the pollster would turn to Question 1 -- would you vote to remove Davis from office? Then, Question 2. Which one of the following half-dozen major candidates would you support? How about this other group of candidates? How about a third group?

It will be important for pollsters to remind voters that they will be choosing from a field of more than 100 candidates, Maslin said.

Key Question

Also, the poll would ask, will you stay and pick a possible successor after you have voted on whether to recall Davis, or will you leave the booth at that point -- as many voters tend to do in recall elections?

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