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US Election: Using Field Glasses to Read the Polls

"Here he is, the world's greatest pollster!" So went the introduction for Merv Field whose famous California poll dates from the Dewey/Truman era and who was speaking in the Harris Seminar series at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley today (Wednesday).

He had to hang fire for a few minutes in order to do some quick repairs to the overheads, which had already - in the space of a few hours - been superceded by the latest national poll data, so he was given quite a lengthy introduction which pointed out that his polling was so accurate in the Dewey/Truman race that he'd gone over and over his figures several times because he was sure he'd got something wrong. It was every other poll that had it wrong, not his.

Field worked for Gallup in 1941 when that organisation developed the 10 screening questions used for defining a "likely voter". Over the years those 10 questions have dwindled down to 7 and Gallup's "likely voter" model is now not being accepted because of the erratic swings it is showing in the poll results for this election. Other polls, such as the Harris interactive poll, are also rejected by Field because of errors he has found in their state reports. However, they are accepted by The Hotline, which is an important news source for poll data.

"Taking all leading national polls as of today," said Field, "it's 45-45." Which means that the percentage of likely voters who will choose Bush is starting to come back down again. In the "Summary of non-partisan/media-sponsored post-convention state polls" as at 25 October which the Field Institute compiled, neither candidate has any glaring advantage in any state and in fact the figures show that the number of "toss-up" states is increasing - totally at the expense of Gore.

Singling out the MSNBC/Reuters/Zogby poll data - and a Zogby "likely voter" has to have voted in the last 4 elections, a much stricter criteria than other polls have - Field pointed out that their latest national poll is 45-42 to Gore. Such strict criteria, he says, is likely to have the effect of screening out more liberal voters than Republican ones so the significance of that lead is far greater than its small size would seem to indicate.

But it is the state polls that matter because of the way the President is elected - through an Electoral College, in which each state (and the District of Columbia) has as many votes as the number of seats it has in the House of Representatives plus two. Members of the Electoral College are voted for at the November 7 election and will cast their votes on December 18. The Electoral College consists of 538 electors, and a majority of 270 electoral votes is required to elect the President and Vice President (who is basically just joined at the President's hip in this process).

Field this afternoon echoed the opinion expressed on a news show this morning by Jesse Ventura, the independent Governor of Minnesota, that if the person who becomes the President is not also the person who wins the popular vote there is likely to be a huge groundswell for a change to the Constitution. It's not an unlikely scenario at this stage, Field said, that Bush might win by the multimillions in the popular vote, but for Gore to become President by virtue of winning the Electoral College votes.

Nonetheless, the Field Institute's electoral vote projections for 25 October show Gore having only 172 electoral votes and Bush 213, with 153 toss-ups. The institute bases that figure on the number of states each candidate has a lead in according to reputable polls in each state. Asked if California is now up for grabs because of the Nader factor Field replied no because Gore's lead is in the high single digits and there is a counter movement against Nader beginning to kick in. "Several - how shall I put it? - 'pragmatic' Nader supporters are asking him to cool it", Field said, referring to some former Nader's Raiders who were in last night's news bulletins warning Nader that he was throwing the election to the Republicans.

By contrast, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer last night featured a lengthy debate between faithful Nader supporter Jim Hightower and the Democratic Senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone, who was getting very heated about the possibility of Nader throwing the election to Bush. Minnesota is the state that surprised itself by electing the above-mentioned professional wrestler Jesse Ventura as Governor and then discovering that he wasn't half bad at the job. Wellstone could find no answer to Hightower's claim that 60-70 percent of Americans do not trust the two-party democratic process, as evidenced by the numbers who don't register, don't vote, or vote for independents or third parties.

Field discounts the Nader factor also because he perceives his support as being in the 18-29 year age bracket which is proportionately less likely to turn out than the middle class people and seniors who make up the "likely voter" profile. He says that a lot of third party surges dissipate when it comes to voting day. All the same, he says, the only passion in the race is the people going to the Nader rallies. If he'd gone to the one in Oakland on Saturday night he would have seen a very large number - perhaps over half the audience - of seniors and middle-aged people, many of them from the middle income bracket and many of them speaking languages other than English.

California has experienced an unusually large surge in registration rolls in California, especially among young Latinos. The Mill Valley Film Festival's "New Movies Lab" I attended a couple of weeks ago featured industry panelists from the internet and digital video film-making world and two of them had a very strong commitment to energizing the Latino community for the coming election, and a very large following among it, so perhaps the new media really are making a difference. Field thinks this new voter surge will favour Gore. But, as Tom Tomorrow (creator of the "This Modern World" cartoon strip) said at Nader's rally: "Gore could stand naked on the Golden Gate Bridge with six interns and still not lose California."

Which kind of makes it even more attractive to "vote your conscience, not your fear" as the Nader slogan goes. And, of Bush and Gore, who's more fearsome anyway? According to a major retail chain, 51 percent of Halloween mask buyers say Gore and 49 percent say Bush.

Lea Barker
Wednesday 25 October PT

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