• U.S.

THE WHITE HOUSE: Those Puzzling Public Polls

5 minute read

Gerald Ford, father and husband, received four turtleneck sweaters of various hues for Christmas last week as he vacationed with his family at the posh ski resort in Vail, Colo. Gerald Ford, President and politician, received an even more warming present: the latest Gallup poll, released just before Christmas, showed that 46% of those surveyed approve of the way he is doing his job—a sizable spurt of 5% in two weeks.

Ford had a particular reason to be heartened by Gallup’s findings. Early last month, Gallup showed Ronald Reagan moving up fast as a contender for the G.O.P. presidential nomination, outpolling Ford among Republican voters. Then Louis Harris reported that the President trailed Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey, 52% to 41%, when they were matched in a head-to-head race for the presidency. Finally Gallup plunged the entire polling business into question by finding that Ford was ahead of Humphrey, 51% to 39%.

Dramatic Shifts. Harris and Gallup were as taken aback as anyone by their contradictory findings. Usually, the two longtime and respected rivals agree with each other. They got their conflicting results by using almost identical techniques: Harris’ sample consisted of 1,214 people and Gallup’s 1,078—an insignificant difference; each used face-to-face interviews instead of relying on the telephone; and their questions were similarly worded. Trying to explain what happened, both concluded that the discrepancy must have been caused by an accident of timing. The Harris poll was conducted after the President shook up his Cabinet and Reagan announced his candidacy, but before Ford went to China. The Gallup poll, taken right after Ford left Peking, may have produced what Harris calls a “euphoric blip” for Ford. Says Alec Gallup, the son of Polling Pioneer George Gallup: “Even though nothing much happened, the China trip apparently had more effect than people thought.”

Assuming that Gallup and Harris are right, the fact that a non-event like the China trip could have such a drastic effect says something important: that Ford has so far failed to establish himself solidly in the mind of the electorate. What is more, no candidate in either party has managed to make much of an impression on the voters. “We’ve never seen it this soft,” says Gallup, and Harris adds that most Americans “are not absolutely committed in blood” to any one man. As a result, the Gallup organization now expects that there will be many dramatic shifts in future polls, certainly until after the early primaries are over.

Should the pollsters bother at all when so many Americans seem so apathetic about the candidates? Gallup argues that the surveys provide “an instant slice of the electorate,” a reasonably accurate reflection of the national mood even if that mood is vague. Some pollsters maintain that success in the surveys can help a candidate raise money, as well as create the image of a winner. Gallup has doubts on both points. As past experience has shown, a poor performance in the early season polls is not always fatal to a presidential candidate. Four years ago, only 7%, or less, of the Democrats surveyed by the pollsters were picking George McGovern as the man they wanted on their ticket.

Heated Debate. This year’s race will be wide open in both parties. “We’ve never had an unelected incumbent before,” Gallup notes. Agrees Harris: “Ford has never run for national office and has no political base. He may be the most volatile presidential candidate we’ve had.”

At the moment, he is certainly one of the most besieged. Having flip-flopped and finally signed an extension of the $18 billion 1975 tax cut, Ford also moved last week on two other bills that are certain to stir heated debate throughout this political year. He vetoed the “common situs” picketing bill that would have allowed construction workers from a single local of a single union to close down an entire building project. The measure was opposed by conservatives, including Reagan as well as some moderates, who feared it would make the construction industry even more chaotic and lead to inflationary wage-and-price increases.

Ford also reluctantly signed an energy bill that may well increase U.S. dependence on foreign-oil imports, though that is precisely the opposite of what he had been aiming for (see following story). But the bill should have one politically important effect: it will probably keep the price of fuel oil down in New Hampshire, where the nation’s first primary will occur on Feb. 24.

To add to his troubles, Ford was criticized by a National Press Club report for failing to be open and frank with newsmen, although he had so pledged himself upon taking office. The paper also sharply rebuked Press Secretary Ron Nessen for failing to keep newsmen properly informed.

Once he arrived at Vail, Ford took to the slopes every chance he got, showing steady form and taking his falls in good humor. He munched elkburgers atop a mountain with members of the Ski Patrol and made a creditable run with four representatives from the U.S. alpine ski team. Asked beforehand if he intended to give the experts some advice, Ford smiled and said, “No, it would ruin their reputation.” Later, Hank Tauber, alpine director of the U.S. Olympic ski team, pronounced Ford the best skier over the age of 60 he had ever seen.

The President swam in a heated indoor pool, relaxed with his family and did a bit of partying. This week, though, he will be back at his desk in the White House, and it may be some time before he will have another chance to escape the problems and politics of his office.

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