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Polls are indicators, not rule makers, NBC analyst says

Polls aren't all bad, says Peter D. Hart, who makes money doing them. They can provide elected officials with a "road map" of where the people want to go.

But even Hart acknowledges there are too many polls these days and numbers from them are too often manipulated.

"I think polls are terribly helpful," Hart said. "They give us a gauge, a measure, a way of knowing where we are as a society. It's not helpful that we measure every breath we take every hour we take it."

You may not know Hart, who spent part of this week as a visiting lecturer at Eckerd College. But if you've watched election night coverage on CBS with Dan Rather, you've seen him. He was on CBS from 1974 until recently. Now he has switched to NBC. He conducts polls and analysis for the television network and the Wall Street Journal.

Pretenders and manipulators have flooded Hart's profession. He sees three things wrong with this proliferation.

Advocacy polling, or when a client sets out to prove something with a poll. Those don't reflect public opinion; they distort it.

Instant-reaction polls. "We ask questions before people have had time to formulate responses."

Volume. "We have so many polls that we constantly seem to be looking for reassurance," he said. "We don't differentiate between what counts and what doesn't."

What does count?

Not telephone surveys with a 900 number that cost 50 cents. Two problems: They're "self-activated" (not random), and they don't have a number to call for "maybe" or "I don't know."

Here is how Hart assesses emerging issues in Florida's gubernatorial race and a sampling of national issues:

Abortion. "Secondary importance." More important, he said, will be the public perception that Gov. Bob Martinez was ineffective when he called for abortion restrictions and failed to get any.

Environment. "Huge issue." It helped elect Bush and will stay near the top of the list in the 1990s.

Day care. Part of the gamut of children's issues, "a sleeper issue" with "a huge voting constituency."

Drugs and crime. At the top of the list, but not necessarily an election maker. Drugs today, Hart said, are like inflation in 1978. Every candidate was against inflation, but voters couldn't perceive any difference in candidates' solutions.

Health care. "People are going crazy about health care. They have a feeling the costs are out of sight and the quality is deteriorating."