The silly season of handicapping pols and polls

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Ho, hum. It's still two and a half years to the next New Hampshire presidential primary, but the handicapping for the Republican presidential race has already begun. Based on a poll of 400 Republicans for WMUR-TV in Manchester, its reporter intoned the other day that if the primary "were held today, George W. Bush would beat out the other contenders."

But, please note, it isn't being held today. The results of this early poll therefore mean almost nothing, a poll being -- as the professionals like to remind us -- no more than a snapshot of sentiment at a given moment.


Furthermore, the relatively small sampling yielded insignificant support for any of the candidates mentioned and insignificant differences among the "leaders" in the poll.

Mr. Bush -- the freshman governor of Texas, not the former president -- got 16 percent to 12 each for Jack Kemp and Lamar Alexander, 11 for Steve Forbes, 9 for Pat Buchanan, 8 for New Hampshire Sen. Robert Smith (who?), 5 for Dan Quayle, 3 each for Newt Gingrich, Sen. Fred Thompson and Alan Keyes and one each for Sen. John Ashcroft and freshman Rep. J.W. Watts.


Governor Bush's 16 percent, however, is surprising in light of the fact that he was elected to his first public office only two and a half years ago and has made little splash on the national scene. Interestingly, though, the poll also found that he has 97 percent name identification with the voters polled in New Hampshire, a finding that strongly suggests many of them have him confused with his father.


Such early polls usually produce the highest ratings for the best-known politicians, and that is the case in this one, although the numbers for Messrs. Kemp, Alexander, Forbes and Buchanan, who have worn out a lot of shoe leather traipsing around New Hampshire, are certainly nothing to get excited about.

Dan Quayle, who played advance man for George Bush (the father) in New Hampshire in the 1992 primary campaign but didn't do much good for him, can find even less to rejoice over in the poll, which suggests that to know him is as likely as not to dislike him. Despite 100 percent name ID in the survey, only 41 percent said they had a favorable impression of him, to 42 percent who had an unfavorable one.

Mr. Buchanan, who won the primary in 1996, upsetting Bob Dole, has a name ID of 97 percent and a 37 percent favorable rating; 47 percent don't like him. And while familiarity has not exactly bred contempt for Mr. Forbes, also with a 97 percent name ID, only 41 percent said they think favorably of him, to 36 who say they are negative.

Cheerleaders for candidates Bush, Kemp and Alexander no doubt will be issuing press releases on their "victories" in the New Hampshire poll, not only for their "leading" standing but the favorable-to-unfavorable ratios each got: Bush (53-17), Kemp (56-25)), Alexander (40-26).

Crystal balls

Despite the relative meaninglessness of such polls, they are the only things that political crystal-ball gazers (including us) have to go on at this early stage, along with the presidential aspirants' ability to raise money. And even that yardstick isn't reliable, as Sen. Phil Gramm found out in 1996 after proclaiming that "the best friend you can have in politics is ready money."


Mr. Gramm held fund-raisers at an incredibly frenetic rate, raising $16 million going into 1996, yet never got his campaign off the ground. Still, others are already back on the money path for 2000.

So the silly season is already on. Actually, it started before this poll, with a cattle show of Republican hopefuls in Indianapolis last month.

You can bet there will be more polls and candidate roundups in the months ahead, all just as meaningless.

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

Pub Date: 9/05/97