Two of the nation's busiest polling organizations have worked in near-secrecy this election year, harvesting opinion, analyzing it, carefully shielding it from prying eyes. They are not out to make news.
They are out to win the White House."We do states. We do the nation. We interpret the data and we make recommendations on the basis of it," said Irwin "Tubby" Harrison, pollster for the Dukakis campaign. "There is a high level of interest."
"We're doing the obvious things: a few national polls, a lot of statewide polls," said Robert Teeter, his counterpart in the Bush campaign. "Quite a lot of statewide polls. . . . It all depends on what the current problem is."
The problem is not lack of effort. Each of these men has more than 100 interviewers working the phones every day, more added for special projects. Each has a hefty budget and a keenly interested, if private, audience.
Neither likes to discuss his results publicly. But the effect of their work can be seen every day: In many ways, polls are setting the agenda in the campaign for the presidency.
"Polling is a major part of the campaign decision-making apparatus," said pollster Peter Hart, head of Walter Mondale's polling operation in the 1984 election. "It affects everything from scheduling to advertising to the very basic message components of a campaign."
His old nemesis, President Reagan's pollster, Richard Wirthlin, agreed: "To understand what public attitudes are - not necessarily who's ahead and behind - is the grist that drives the strategic mill of the campaign."
This year, the effects could not be clearer. Polls have put Michael Dukakis in a tank, George Bush in a flag factory and day care on page one. They have encouraged sharp Democratic criticism of Bush's choice for vice president and a soft Republican line on Dukakis' running mate.
Behind nearly every strategic move lies a poll. "You have a choice," said Hart. "You can either make your decisions on the basis of your best guess - or on the basis of solid information from polling."
As a result, each campaign may spend up to $2 million on general election polling, Hart said. "It will probably only turn out to be 3 percent of the total campaign budget. But that 3 percent drives the other 97 percent."
Polling long has been a marketing tool in business, and its role is much the same in a campaign. By testing themes, polltakers can tell which issues hit the mark; by testing popularity, they can focus efforts on the states where their chances are best.
"You have a limited number of resources, a limited amount of time and a limited amount of candidates," said Teeter. "You're trying to figure out how to use those resources the best way you can to have the greatest influence on the election."
For example, the Bush campaign polled heavily before the Super Tuesday regional primary to decide where to spend advertising money and where to send the candidate. Said Teeter: "Do we spend time in Florida or North Carolina?" His polls found Bush already had Florida locked up. "We went to North Carolina." Bush won there, too.
At this stage of the general election campaign, the approach is more tuned to broader issues and themes. Among them:
-Polls this summer showed Bush's support lagging among wom-en. Bush, not vociferous on the issue before, visited a Virginia day-care center and proposed tax credits to help pay for child care. He lags less with women now.
-Polls consistently have found public doubt about Dukakis on defense. Last month he climbed aboard a tank in a photo opportunity meant to improve his image on the issue, and a subsequent poll showed that the effort backfired. He also said he supported research into the popular Strategic Defense Initiative, which earlier he had called "a fantasy,"
-Polls have found public agreement with laws requiring teachers to lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance, and Bush has continued to hammer Dukakis for vetoing such legislation on constitutional grounds.
-Polls also have found disquiet with the qualifications of Bush's running mate, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana. Dukakis brings up the issue regularly and hit it hard in his debate Sunday with Bush.
Applying polls to campaign strategy can require more detailed analysis. When Bush was considering possible running mates, for example, polls pointed to Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., on a simple popularity basis. But Quayle was a better fit on underlying issues - among them, Bush's need to assert his independence from President Reagan with a bold stroke of his own.
Still, strategists are quick to stress that polls do not call the shots. "They are not all-determining," said Lee Atwater, Bush's campaign manager.
Hesitancy in the campaigns to discuss the role of polls stems from a fear of charges of cynical candidate packaging. "People talk about politicians responding to the polls in a pejorative sense," Atwater said.
But in fact, he said, "From a certain standpoint I guess that's the way things ought to be done." Polls "are a reflection of what people want," he said. "And politicians are supposed to respond to what people want."