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Whitman Expands and Contracts Depending On Poll

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Is Meg Whitman, as I wrote yesterday based on a poll last week, melting like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz, or is she catching fire like it's Memorial Day?

Depends on the poll and depends on how the poll was conducted.

Back in March, Whitman commanded a strong 50 point lead over GOP rival Steve Poizner.

Then, two weeks back, one pollster, SurveyUSA, reported the contest a virtual dead heat; that was followed by a different poll last week by the Public Policy Institute of California that showed Whitman leading Poizner by only nine points.

Today, SurveyUSA is back in the news with a new poll showing -- ready for this? -- Whitman skyrocketing to a 27 point lead over Poizner, the state's Insurance Commissioner, 54-27!

In what sounds like classic understatement, the CEO of SurveyUSA is quoted as saying, "It's obviously a volatile race."

Really?

I'm more inclined to believe there is a problem with the actual polling, since I can think of no "watershed" event that has happened in the past week or so that would account for such a large shift.

I don't know whether the poll showing Whitman's lead expanding is correct, or the ones showing her lead melting are correct.

The public -- and the press -- sometimes take polls too seriously. They are just snapshots in time. But when the pictures taken vary so greatly, over such a short period of time, it is usually wise to look less at that snapshot and more at the people (or polling institutions) that took the picture in the first place.

Polls, of course, tend to become more reliable the closer one gets to election day. That's because voters become more engaged in the process. So, clearly, a poll taken closer to the June 8th primary date will probably be more reliable than one taken a month before.

Still, one should be skeptical when polls show what would appear to be very wide swings in attitude over relatively short periods of time.

It's the old journalistic axiom at play: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out!"

Charles Feldman is a journalist, media consultant and co-author of the book, "No Time To Think-The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle." He has covered police and politics in L.A. since 1995 and is a regular contributor of investigative reporting to KNX1070 Newsradio.