What the polls tell us -- and what they don't

MANCHESTER, N.H. — MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Every day seems to bring a new opinion poll measuring the travail of Bob Dole and the rise of

Steve Forbes in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. They should be taken with more than a grain of salt.


There is, of course, enough evidence to suggest that Mr. Dole has been losing ground in the last few weeks, most precipitously since his halting performance in his speech replying to President Clinton's State of the Union address. His support level has dropped from the 40 to 50 percent range to the low 30s and in some surveys below 30 percent.

Little solid support


The most recent poll here found Senator Dole with 27 percent of potential primary voters to 18 for Mr. Forbes and 13 for Patrick J. Buchanan. No one else won even 10 percent. Dick Bennett, whose American Research Group is measuring opinion here every day now, says that there is "very little solid support" for anyone -- meaning that the poll figures are likely to change dramatically and frequently between now and the primary February 20.

Mr. Bennett tries to sort out the hard core of each candidate's backing by asking voters if their choice is "the only candidate" for whom they would cast their ballots and whether they would "prefer him over" the others. Using such measures, he puts Mr. Dole's core at 20 to 22 percent, Mr. Forbes' at about 7.

The others who say they support one or the other "could go in a minute," he says.

Somewhat artificial

Poll figures right now are somewhat artificial. Voters are being asked to make a choice before most of them are really prepared to do so. Too, in this campaign they are being subjected to an unprecedented barrage of political advertising kicked off by Mr. Forbes spending several million dollars in both Iowa and New Hampshire, prompting reply ads from Senator Dole and other candidates, particularly Lamar Alexander and Phil Gramm, feeling required to reply.

The voters may not be prepared to make a decision, but they cannot escape the feeling that something big is going on here and that maybe they should pay some attention -- or at least have an answer when confronted by a poll-taker.

The Iowa factor

Finally, an important element is still missing from the body of knowledge voters use here -- the results of those Iowa precinct caucuses eight days before the primary. Although New Hampshire leaders like to think their primary is the be-all and end-all of the fight for the nomination, recent history shows that at least a respectable showing in Iowa is essential to success here. Primary voters don't want to waste their ballots on a candidate who is not considered a viable possibility nationally.


Thus, for example, Gary Hart was lagging far behind Walter Mondale in 1984 polling here until he made a strong showing in some debates and finished a somewhat surprising second in Iowa. Suddenly anointed by the television networks Senator Hart zoomed in eight days from below 15 percent in polls to a winning 37 percent of the vote on primary day.

Tide of celebrity

The Republican situation this year is different. Mr. Forbes, the wealthy political amateur, is riding an extraordinary tide of celebrity fanned by curiosity about his proposal for a flat tax and that saturation TV advertising. He is clearly striking a chord, too, with his relentless assault on "Washington politicians."

But the voters don't really know much about him, and on many issues they have not had much opportunity to compare him to the other candidates. That will change in the one or two debates to be held here before the primary, and as voters see more of all of the contenders on TV news programs.

All the polls really tell us, then, is that Senator Dole's support is thin and that none of the other challengers has caught on with voters here. What they don't tell us is whether that may happen in the final three weeks.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.