WASHINGTON -- Almost daily new opinion polls define the parlous condition of Bob Dole's presidential campaign. Every news organization of even modest pretensions seems to feel obliged to quantify the obvious.
The question now is whether those news organizations can resist the temptation to view the entire campaign through the prism of their polling. If the senator's campaign is always depicted as "struggling uphill" or "staggering" or "faltering" -- to cite some favored cliches -- the Republican nominee will find it even more difficult to change the atmospherics of the campaign and force voters to take a fresh look at his candidacy.
There is no denying that the polling news is uniformly discouraging for Mr. Dole now. And the overall figures are probably not as bad for him as some of what the poll-takers call "the internals" within the data.
Four surveys were finished over the weekend. The CNN daily tracking poll found President Clinton leading with 54 percent to 36 for Mr. Dole and 4 for Ross Perot. A Time magazine survey had it 52-38-6. Two others came in 52-34-5 and 49-34-8. And the private polling being conducted for the two campaigns is finding similar figures.
These polls are striking because in none of them has the Dole-Kemp ticket yet reached 40 percent of the vote, even though the third-party candidate, Mr. Perot, is running far more weakly than he did four years ago. But for professionals there are even more dire portents in the fine print.
First, the number of voters who say they are undecided is remarkably small -- under 10 percent -- for this early in a general-election campaign. That means that the target group for the Republicans -- meaning those voters still waiting to be persuaded -- is somewhat smaller than they would like to see with eight weeks left in the campaign.
Second, Senator Dole has still to solidify his base. The surveys generally show President Clinton holding 85 to 90 percent of self-described Democrats but Mr. Dole backed by less than 70 percent of Republicans. That is a ratio that would spell disaster for the Republican ticket if it holds through election day.
A better track
Third, the surveys are now showing a sharp decline in the percentage of voters who say the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than "headed in the right direction." The wrong-track number had been running 50 to 60 percent or higher for more than a year, a figure that usually spells trouble for incumbents. But in the last few weeks the wrong-track figures have fallen to 40 percent or below, suggesting an electorate relatively satisfied with the status quo and thus presumably less driven to make a change.
The contrast with the same period in 1992 is striking. By the time President Bush became fully engaged in the election campaign, the wrong-track number was in the 60 to 70 percent range. He and his managers ignored it, insisting that the perception of the nation's economic problems would soften before election day. They were dead wrong.
Finally, the state-by-state polls are even more discouraging for the Republican ticket. A new survey made in Texas shows Senator Dole leading Mr. Clinton by only 44 to 41 percent, with 4 percent for Mr. Perot among those voters who presumably know him best. But Texas has become such a strong Republican state that Mr. Dole should be leading by 10 or 15 points there at this point in the campaign.
Other surveys follow the same pattern. Senator Dole is either behind or only narrowly ahead, for example, in Arizona and North Carolina, states he should have wrapped up from the outset.
No one in politics can afford to ignore such a consistent pattern of poll findings. And the newspapers and television stations would be failing in their responsibility if they didn't pass the figures along to readers and viewers. Everyone wants to know the score.
But that is not the same thing as saying that the poll story is the whole story. Mr. Dole deserves a chance to be fully heard even when there is so much reason to believe he is headed for an election-day disaster.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 9/11/96