Making Sense Of All Those Polls

It's easy to be overwhelmed by the relentless spew of numbers. So just zero in on those that matter

Every few days, a new public-opinion poll provides the latest snapshot of the Presidential race. They show some minor differences, but every survey agrees that the contest is very close. And while conventional wisdom often proves wrong, most experts are predicting the tightest election since Jimmy Carter edged out Gerald R. Ford with 51% of the vote in 1976.

It would be easy for anyone to be overwhelmed by the plethora of polls. Don't be intimidated. It's simple to cut through the numbers to figure out what's really going on.

In general, don't pay too much attention to the latest "horse-race" question. Today's results are less important than polling trends over time. A recent Albuquerque Journal poll, for example, indicated that the Presidential race in New Mexico was dead even. Republican campaign operatives cheered the apparent good news in a state that Bill Clinton carried twice. But Democrats quickly pointed out that Vice-President Al Gore had been trailing Republican George W. Bush by 15 points in another New Mexico poll several months ago. So the momentum was with Gore.

Generalities aside, winning elections these days is a study in group politics. Here's what to watch:

-- The Civil War revisited. Huge regional disparities separate the candidates. Gore has a wide lead in the Northeast (61% to 30%, according to the latest Pew Research Center poll), while Bush's base is the South (52% to 35% in a Mar. 8-10 Zogby Poll). Most likely, the election will be decided in the Midwest, where the two candidates remain neck-and-neck. Key states to watch: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri.

-- The ethnic equation. A big battle is going on for the Latino vote, which went 72% for Bill Clinton in '96. Numerous polls show that Bush--who speaks Spanish and portrays himself as a new-style inclusive Republican--is holding his own. Gore needs to make inroads or face disaster in key states such as Florida and Illinois. Among other ethnic groups, Bush's "compassionate conservative" line has earned him only one-seventh of the potential African American vote. And GOP rhetoric about "Chinese money" has turned Asian American voters (historically a swing group) into a solid Democratic bloc, 68% to 9%, according to Zogby, with the rest undecided.

-- The gender gap. Women favor Gore. Men favor Bush. What's new? The key here is the size of the gap. The Pew poll shows Gore 13 points ahead among women and narrowly behind among men. If Bush closes to within single digits among women, it would be good news for the GOP. One sign of hope for Bush: A recent Pew poll shows that Gore's lead among white women is only six points.

-- The generation gap. Elderly voters seem to be one of the most volatile blocs. In December, voters over 65 favored Bush, 50% to 40%, according to Pew. By March, after Gore's months of hammering away at "risky" tax cuts and Social Security, the 65-plus group favored him 62% to 30%. Bush counterattacked, and a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll released on Apr. 7 showed Bush back in front, 45% to 33%.

-- Independents' Day. Because Democrats outnumber Republican loyalists, the GOP needs to win the lion's share of the Independent vote. But Bush's slashing attacks on primary rival John McCain have cost him dearly: Gore is running ahead of Bush with this crucial constituency. When Bush announced his candidacy last June, he led Gore by more than 2 to 1 among Independents. He needs to find a way to kiss and make up with McCain, the reigning king of the Independents.

-- Battle of the 'burbs. At the turn of the 20th century, a political saying went: "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." Now, it would be fair to say: "As the suburbs go, so goes the nation." Democrats are slowly but surely cutting the historical GOP edge in the 'burbs. But Bush is fighting back with an issue that is close to home in suburbia: education. The result is a nip-and-tuck battle. Pew gives Gore a 50%-to-46% edge, reversing an 18-point Bush lead as recently as December. It's a battle that's likely to rage until the final vote is cast on Nov. 7.