Even the experts are confused. One day George Bush has wiped out Bill Clinton's lead in the polls, the next day the Democrat is comfortably ahead. The problem, survey researchers explain, lies both in the polls and the public. Pollsters say the electorate, with no strong attachment to either candidate, really is extremely volatile. But the reliability of some polls is shaky because their very small samples--often less than 800--increase the margin of error. Pollsters also say the results are unstable because they are having a hard time figuring out just who is likely to vote this year. Journalists compound the problem with sloppy reporting. By treating different polls as equivalent when samples and methodology vary, the reports make it seem as though voters are veering wildly from day to day.

The mess is intensified by a new phenomenon: widespread lying by voters upset with the prevalence and power of the pollsters and market researchers. "There's a lot of mischief right now," says Karlyn H. Keene of the American Enterprise Institute. But pollsters expect reliability to increase as Election Day nears. Their samples will be larger, identification of likely voters will be sharper, and the voters themselves will be more focused.

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