A fifth of the electorate remained in flux up to the last moment in the long presidential campaign, their indecision contributing to the variance in poll estimates of George Bush’s advantage.
National surveys Monday found Bush maintaining his months-old lead over Michael S. Dukakis, but the Republican nominee’s margin varied from 4 points in one survey to 6 in another and 11 in a third.
A CBS News poll found the race tightening, with Bush’s lead slipping from 9 points on Friday and Saturday to 6 on Saturday and Sunday. A Harris poll said Dukakis had closed to within 4, also citing late tightening.
Gallup, however, found Bush solidly ahead and holding steady.
Pollsters attributed the differing figures to relatively high levels of voter dissatisfaction and indecision, factors that increase the difficulty of determining who is likely to vote--and make turnout a crucial element.
In Gallup’s final pre-election poll, 20% were undecided or said they could change their minds, easily enough to alter the outcome in the states, including some big states, where the election was close.
“When the vote is soft like this, the get-out-the vote efforts take on a lot more importance,” said Gallup pollster Larry Hugick. “People don’t feel about it strongly. They can vote the way they say, they can stay home, or they can be urged by somebody to change their vote.”
Only about half of each candidates’ supporters in the Gallup poll backed them strongly, indicating the extent of voter dissatisfaction.
Gallup gave Bush an 11-point lead among likely voters, 53% to 42%. When it apportioned the 5% who remained undecided by their background and ideology, Gallup arrived at a 56% to 44% estimate.
The Harris poll, done Wednesday through Sunday, put the race at 50% to 46%. CBS had it at 49% to 43% Saturday and Sunday, tightened from 51% to 42% Friday and Saturday.
Gallup, however, said it had found the race essentially stable, with Bush leading by 12 points on Thursday and Friday and by 11 on Saturday and Sunday. Its final estimate combined the results of the four days.
In addition to the difficulties of defining likely voters, the differing results indicated the inherent imprecision of polling. In the 1984 election, one in which voter sentiment was considerably more solid, final pre-election polls gave President Reagan leads ranging from 10 to 25 points. He won by 18.
The new CBS poll found Bush ahead in the South, Dukakis narrowly ahead in the Northeast and the race close elsewhere. Gallup, similarly, found the race close in the East, the industrial Midwest and on the Pacific Coast.
“The South is a big blowout” for Bush, Hugick said. “But there’s a lot of states that don’t look like the national race.”
In an example of the possible effect of turnout, Gallup found Bush leading by 8 points among all registered voters, compared with 11 points among the registered voters that it determined were likely to vote.
Harris Poll Results
Harris, which consistently has had the race closer than most other polls, had put it at 50-45 on Sunday, with results from Wednesday through Saturday. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll Sunday also found Bush ahead by 5 points, while other polls found Bush leads of 9, 10, 11 and 12.
The latest Harris poll was conducted among 2,737 likely voters, the Gallup poll among 2,626 and the CBS poll among 1,537. The Harris and Gallup polls had margins of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points; CBS, 3 points.