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Polls as addictive -- and temporary -- as your leftover pie

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 28, 1999


Opinion polls are addictive.

Spinning through numbers from the St. Petersburg Times-Miami Herald poll earlier this month stirred all sorts of discussions around here about the uneasiness of voters even in good economic times, Gov. Jeb Bush's popularity and heightened concern about Social Security and education.

And what does it mean that three of four voters said they oppose affirmative action and believe a person's ability is the only issue that should matter?

Are Florida voters naive? Are they indifferent? Or was the question badly worded?

It became easier to identify with President Clinton's obsession. Stare at poll results long enough, and you can get a sense of the mood of the voters that might be missed in a handful of interviews.

Of course, this poll business can be taken too seriously.

Who else but Clinton would take a poll to decide where to go on vacation or whether to tell the truth about an affair with an intern?

The Bush brothers, Jeb and George W., are among many politicians who pledge to swear off governing by polls or focus groups. But kept in perspective, poll numbers can be useful as long as we remember they are snapshots of feelings on a particular day. Those opinions can turn on a dime.

In that holiday spirit, some poll numbers to digest along with leftover turkey and stuffing:

Floridians feel a lot better about the direction of the state than they do about the direction of the country.

A poll by an arm of Associated Industries, the large business lobby, found 59 percent believe the state is headed in the right direction, and only 25 percent believe it is headed in the wrong direction. But the Times-Herald poll found just 39 percent believe the country is headed in the right direction, while 41 percent say it is headed in the wrong direction.

In Florida, George W. Bush leads the closest challenger, John McCain, by 59 percent to 14 percent.

In Iowa, home of the first caucuses on Jan. 24, Bush leads McCain by 53 percent to 12 percent.

In New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 1, Bush leads McCain by 38 percent to 33 percent.

Outside Tallahassee, legislative leaders can walk down the street without being recognized.

While more than nine of 10 Florida voters recognize Jeb Bush's name, the Associated Industries poll shows less than three of 10 have heard of state Senate President Toni Jennings. That's a bad sign for someone planning to run for statewide office.

But there is a whiff of trouble for all incumbent lawmakers.

Just 31 percent of Florida's voters say they want their local state senator or House member to be re-elected, according to a poll by another business group, Florida Free. Half say they would prefer others be given a chance.

Despite all of the television time and ink used to follow the presidential campaigns, voters remain disengaged.

More than 8 of 10 voters do not know that Democrat Bill Bradley has proposed offering government-subsidized health insurance to poor people, according to a poll by the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. Almost 8 of 10 did not know McCain supports dramatic change in campaign financing.

There's a reason for that.

A new CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll shows only 34 percent of registered voters say they have devoted a lot of attention to the presidential campaigns, while more than half say they have given the race only a little attention.

That's no consolation to Lamar Alexander, Elizabeth Dole, John Kasich and Dan Quayle. They've already been forced to drop out of the presidential race before most people were watching.

Clinton receives higher marks nationwide than he does in Florida, despite being the first Democratic presidential candidate in 20 years to win the state.

Nationally, 60 percent of the voters approve of the job Clinton is doing, according to a Newsweek poll. In Florida, though, the Times-Herald poll shows Clinton's approval rating is only 50 percent.

In Florida and in Iowa, Al Gore leads Bill Bradley by 54 percent to 32 percent.

In New Hampshire, they are in a statistical tie -- but more than six out of 10 voters say they might change their minds.

That's the way it is with politics and polls. Just when you think you have a handle on what voters are thinking about a particular candidate, they can head in another direction.

Now go eat another piece of pie.

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