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Jewish World Review June 2, 2000 / 28 Iyar, 5760

Roger Simon

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Consumer Reports

Are you a virus? -- A GUY from the Bush campaign called and told me he was sending me an important e-mail.

"It has an attachment, and you should open it right away," he said.

Are you a virus? I asked him. Are you one of these new talking viruses trying to trap me?

He seemed a little taken aback by this.

"No, I'm a real person," he said. "And we're sending you an important chart."

If you're a real person, I said, then tell me who won the World Series in 1996.

"I have no idea," he said.

Actually, I had no idea either, but I figured if he were a virus he would know the answer, so I figured he was a real person.

"After you've opened up the chart, call me back," he said.

The e-mail came immediately, and I opened up the chart. The chart had two lines on it. One represented Al Gore, and the other represented George Bush.

The Gore line started low on the chart, then shot up past Bush and then sunk. By the time you got to the end of the chart, the Bush line was soaring and the Gore line was plummeting.

I called the Bush guy back.

So what's the chart supposed to show? I asked. The number of times each called the other a liar?

"It is a chart of the Net Favorability Rating Comparison from January through the middle of May," he said. "It is based on a compilation of two polls."

I knew that, I lied. So what is a Net Favorability Rating?

"If the polls show you with a 60 percent favorability rating and a 40 percent unfavorability rating, you would have a 20 percent net favorability rating," he said. "If the polls show you with a 48 percent favorability rating and 52 percent unfavorability rating, you would have a minus four net favorability."

This might seem like nonsense -- and to a certain extent it is -- but these ratings are very important to politicians.

When, throughout the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Clinton's favorability rating remained high -- in fact, it reached a record high -- that gave Clinton powerful ammunition for arguing that the American people were on his side and he should remain in office.

"As you can see," the Bush aide said, "in mid-February, Gore had a net favorability of plus 13, which is as high as he rose. Today he is down to a plus 5. Today, George Bush, on the other hand, is at a plus 21."

And what does this tell us? I asked.

"That Gore's negative attacks on Gov. Bush have not worked," the aide said. "The attacking Al Gore was Gore Version 5.0, and it did not stay on the shelf very long because now he is going to try to go positive to boost his ratings."

Which may be true. This week, Gore started taking a more positive tone, letting others do his attacking for him.

But do favorability ratings really tell us anything? Well, it matters a great deal how you phrase the question.

In January, for example, ABC asked: "Do you have a favorable or unfavorable impression of Clinton as a person?" The result was: 34 percent favorable and 61 percent unfavorable.

But that same month, The Associated Press asked: "Is your opinion of Bill Clinton favorable or unfavorable?" And the result was 47 percent favorable and 46 percent unfavorable."

Why the big difference between the two polls? The Associated Press did not use the phrase "as a person," and that made a difference in the results.

Polling is not quite as scientific as pollsters would have you believe. Do people really have a high opinion of George Bush and low opinion of Al Gore.

Maybe. But so what? It's June.

Back in February, people had a higher opinion of Gore than Bush. The election is five months away and the situation could change five more times at least.

In fact, we all know the truth: The only thing most people really find favorable about the presidential election process is that by mid-November it will be all over.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate