Sure, the Bush campaign is going swell. Sure . . .


It is shortly before the New Hampshire primary and I am talking to a person who has just talked to a person in the White House.

"The tracking polls from New Hampshire show Bush steady at 60 percent," the person is saying. "The White House is not worried."

The White House is not worried. George Bush will not be humiliated in the New Hampshire primary because the tracking polls are good.

Tracking polls, which are a type of "horse-race" poll that takes a small daily sample, are the least reliable of all polls. And few have the self-discipline to look at them properly. The daily sample is too small to be reliable, and so what you really should look for is trends.

But almost nobody does look at them that way, least of all candidates. They just take the daily figures and imagine that they reflect reality. Because that is what polls are supposed to do, right?

And so the White House is not worried. The daily tracking polls are showing Bush at 60 percent.

Me, I do not believe it. A number of my colleagues on the press bus do not believe it, either. We are attending Bush rallies, talking to people in his crowds, attending Buchanan rallies, talking to people in his crowds, and we do not believe Bush will do so well.

"But all you have is anecdotal evidence," the person on the phone sniffs.

In other words, all we have is garbage. Our information is not scientific. It is not based on polls.

And it occurs to me after I hang up that gathering anecdotal evidence is all that reporters really do. We talk to people. We analyze. We develop feelings. We compare events of the present with events of the past.

And I remember the past:

It is 1976, my first year of covering presidential politics. Jimmy Carter, who is doing well, is facing off against Henry Jackson in the Massachusetts primary.

I go to several Jackson rallies and the level of enthusiasm is extraordinary. The crowds are huge; they seem more motivated than the crowds at Carter rallies and Jackson seems to be really connecting with the people.

After the last Jackson rally, I am sitting on the press bus typing my story when a wise, older head of journalism plops down next to me and glances at my lead, which indicates Henry Jackson might do very well in Massachusetts.

He snorts. "Let me give you some advice," he tells me. "Never be influenced by the last rally you attend. The crowds, the shouting, the hoopla; they always throw you off."

Which is good advice. Although the term is not then in wide use, what he is really warning me about is "anecdotal evidence."

So I rip up my story and write a more balanced one. And Henry Jackson wins a stunning victory in Massachusetts.

This occurs to me as I cover Bush in New Hampshire. This occurs to me as I see crowds of his that can only be described as pathetic.

At the Davidson Flight Service Hangar in Nashua last weekend, three days before the New Hampshire primary, a tiny crowd is there to greet the president and Mrs. Bush.

In 1988, I went to hangar greetings for Bush where there were so many people it was hard to breathe.

Now, even though the weather is good and busloads of supporters have been brought in from Massachusetts, the crowd numbers only a few hundred and does not fill a quarter of the hangar.

Anecdotal evidence. Does not mean a thing.

At the next campaign stop, the Central Elementary School gymnasium in New Boston, the crowd goes down from pathetic to ridiculous.

Only half the bleachers are pulled out so people can sit on them and these are only partly filled.

The reporters get off the press buses and fan out in the crowd.

Dan Jamrog teaches sixth grade. "I voted for Bush four years ago, but I'm on the fence now," he tells me. "He hasn't kept his promises."

Kathy Vonegan stands a few feet away. "He doesn't care about people," she says with real anger in her voice. "He cares about polls."

Bush comes out and gives a lackluster speech. He seems to be speaking to the cameras, not the people.

"We have won the Cold War!" he says. "We have beaten down that aggressor in Kuwait, Mr. Saddam Hussein!"

But in New Hampshire they have seen the bumper sticker: "Saddam Hussein has a job. Do you?"

When Bush is done, there is only a ripple of applause.

Anecdotal evidence. Not important.

The Bush people are not worried. They know they will do well in New Hampshire. Besides, Pat Buchanan is a joke. He cannot get the nomination. Cannot.

The White House has the polls to prove it.

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