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The Times Poll : 4 Days of ‘Spin’ Bring Dukakis a Slight Edge in Debate

Times Staff Writer

After a few days of mind-spinning by campaign gurus and careful dissecting by news analysts, voters have concluded that Michael S. Dukakis probably won last Sunday’s debate with George Bush, the Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

This, in itself, is a slight public relations victory for Dukakis because, according to a Times survey conducted immediately after the televised debate, viewers initially scored it a draw.

But although there now is a consensus among voters that Dukakis had the edge in the debate, this has not affected their opinions about the presidential election. The Times poll found the two candidates running neck-and-neck, both immediately following the debate and again during a follow-up survey on Thursday.

The latest interviews indicated that in looking at news reports and talking to friends about the debate, voters pretty much heard what they wanted to hear. If they believed Dukakis had won the debate, they tended to think the media and their friends felt that way too. Apparently there was little perception by voters that they had been influenced by the opinions of others--or “spun,” as the concept is called in the political world.

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But it is clear that a shift in opinion occurred, and it either had to come from the voters’ own instincts or effects of outside influences, such as comments from the candidates, media or acquaintances.

The Times poll, directed by I. A. Lewis, initially surveyed people before the debate, conducting telephone interviews nationwide with 952 registered voters who said they planned to watch the event. Immediately after the debate, 637 of those people were interviewed again to determine whether their attitudes about the candidates had been changed by the confrontation. Then, four days later, 622 of the originally-surveyed were re-interviewed in an effort to find whether there had been a “spinning” effect.

The margin of error for the pre-debate survey was 4 percentage points in either direction. For the two post-debate polls, it was 5 points.

The post-debate interviews found voters generally mirroring the news media’s cautious approach toward picking a “winner” and “loser” of the campaign face-off. But as the week progressed, both the public and the media seemed to edge toward a consensus that Dukakis had wound up slightly ahead on points.

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In the final interviews, 37% of those surveyed thought Dukakis had won the debate, 29% gave it to Bush, 28% called it a draw and 6% were not sure. The voters’ initial mixed reaction on Sunday night had been Dukakis 35%, Bush 34%, a draw 29%, not sure 2%--a statistical non-decision.

Prophecy Valid?

Going into the debate, most political experts were saying it was sure to be one of the two or three most important events of the presidential race, a landmark turning point that could well propel a candidate toward victory on Nov. 8. It still is too early to judge the accuracy of that prediction, but the Times poll so far has found little evidence to substantiate the prophecy’s validity.

The debate apparently had little, if any, influence on the voters’ thinking about who should be President.

Asked who they would vote for if the election were held today, people in the latest survey were split down the middle: Dukakis 45%, Bush 45%, “others” 2% and undecided 8%. This is virtually the same standing that existed in the hours immediately following the debate, and also during the two-day period leading up to the confrontation, although the proportion of undecided voters has decreased in the past week.

The surveys found that most voters--regardless of whom they supported for President--thought that news coverage of the debate was balanced. If they backed Dukakis, they figured the coverage, if anything, was slanted slightly in his favor. If they preferred Bush, their feeling was that the coverage tilted a bit toward him.

Their families and friends--those people who might be expected to form some persuasive peer pressure--basically agreed with them about the debate, voters told Times poll interviewers.

As might be anticipated, Democrats thought overwhelmingly that Dukakis won the debate. And just as overwhelmingly, Republicans thought Bush won. Independents called it a draw.

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Interestingly, both candidates were judged to be just outside of the political mainstream.

More Dukakis supporters than not thought the Massachusetts governor was to the left of their own philosophy. Likewise, more Bush backers than not placed the vice president to the right of their own views. Bush has made an issue of Dukakis’ liberalism--branding him far out of the American mainstream--but the vice president’s conservatism has not become a major topic of campaign dialogue.

After mulling over the debate for four days, voters said Dukakis “displayed the strongest personality and character,” “responded best under pressure,” “got across his message better,” “attacked more,” “gave more direct answers,” “summed up best at the end” and showed he would “do the best job” of reducing the deficit and protecting the environment.

Voters thought Bush seemed more “knowledgeable” and “presidential"--although Dukakis measured up better on both scores than they had expected. They also said Bush had “more warmth.” And they felt he would “do the best job,” by far, of managing foreign policy, handling defense, holding down taxes, controlling crime and “protecting traditional American values.”

The bad news for Bush was that voters, by nearly 7 to 1, believed that Dukakis’ running mate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, would be “more qualified to take over the job of President,” if need be, than the GOP vice presidential candidate, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana.

Bentsen and Quayle will debate next Wednesday and, by 7 to 1, voters thought Bentsen would win the event.


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